In a bid to bolster their reputations at home and abroad, some universities, mostly from Western Canada, are turning to U.S. accrediting agencies to gain an international seal of approval.
Capilano University in Vancouver, B.C. was accredited this year by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (or NWCCU) in Washington State, one of six major regional agencies in the U.S. that evaluates postsecondary educational quality. B.C.’s Thompson Rivers University recently announced that it too would seek accreditation from the NWCCU and plans to submit its application in September.
Ulrich Scheck, TRU provost and vice-president academic, said the university is seeking U.S. accreditation because it wants to adopt assessment processes to ensure TRU meets certain quality standards and to identify areas in need of improvement. “It’s all about the students and the value we give to students, to really make sure that the value of a TRU credential is there for students and that we can demonstrate it,” Dr. Scheck said.
International accreditation is particularly helpful for newer institutions like TRU, which converted from a community college to a university in 2005. As a small, teaching-focused, institution that lacks the national and international presence and brand-name recognition of Canada’s larger and older institutions, TRU wanted a way to “prove to the world that we are a first-class institution, and accreditation is one way to do that,” said Dr. Scheck. U.S. accreditation will also help TRU better recruit foreign students, he added.
TRU looked at several accrediting agencies in the U.S. and Europe before it settled on the NWCCU, because it is geographically close and the organization is familiar with the Canadian postsecondary system, having worked with Capilano and Simon Fraser University. The NWCCU approved Capilano’s accreditation in January following a seven-year process. “We now have a very well-recognized seal of approval in international markets [that] has enabled European universities to look on us in an entirely different light,” said Graham Fane, dean of business and professional studies.
Before Capilano started on this path, while it was still a community college, students who wanted to do graduate studies abroad sometimes had difficulty having their undergraduate credentials recognized by American and European institutions, he said. The accreditation has also transformed internal planning and curriculum development processes, including the adoption of student learning outcomes. “It has provided us with a benchmark with which we can compare our operations to those that are expected by the big-box universities,” said Professor Fane.
Kevin Kinser, associate professor of education at the State University of New York at Albany, said postsecondary institutions in several countries are increasingly applying for U.S. accreditation because it bestows status on qualifying institutions and allows them to better promote themselves internationally.
“The U.S. accreditation standard is something that resonates globally,” he said. “It’s something students will look at as a mark of quality.” In 2010-11, the most recent year for which figures are available, U.S. agencies accredited 857 foreign institutions in 70 countries, according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a coordinating body.
U.S. accreditors benefit financially through higher membership dues. But, more importantly, they too are seeking to boost their reputation by staking out a role for themselves in the international arena rather than be overshadowed by Australian and British accreditors, Dr. Kinser added. Their expanded role has raised questions at home about how U.S. organizations are able to assess foreign universities, particularly in countries with authoritarian regimes that limit freedom of expression. But the Canadian system, with its similar language and academic traditions, doesn’t present any of these challenges, he said.
In the U.S., accreditation by private, non-profit organizations is necessary for U.S. colleges and universities to qualify for government funding and for domestic students to access financial aid. In Canada, membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada along with a provincial charter or appropriate legislation is seen as fulfilling a somewhat similar role. In addition, provincial quality assurance councils approve new programs at universities and colleges and periodically review existing ones.
Athabasca University, one of the first Canadian universities to receive U.S. accreditation, was approved by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in 2006. In 2009, Simon Fraser applied for accreditation from the NWCCU as a condition for joining the National Collegiate Athletic Association. At the time, SFU said accreditation would bring other benefits including an enhanced reputation for academic quality and improved accountability measures.
The move to seek international accreditation has been controversial on some campuses. One online commenter to a University Affairs story about SFU seeking NCAA membership said accreditation comes with “a lot of nonsense” that does nothing to improve education or teaching. It can be a costly exercise too. SFU estimated that its membership dues to the NWCCU, which vary according to an institution’s size, would be $15,162 a year plus an additional $15,000 in evaluation fees.
At Capilano, there is “a great deal of resistance” by some faculty members to U.S. accreditation, largely because the process involves defining and implementing student learning outcomes, said Professor Fane, the business dean. Opposition is strongest in the general arts and sciences, disciplines with less of a tradition for measuring and assessing outcomes than professional and career-oriented programs, he said.