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More Canadian universities seek U.S. accreditation

The move can help smaller regional universities do quality assessment and attract foreign students.

By ROSANNA TAMBURRI | JUN 19 2013
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The move to seek international accreditation has been controversial on some campuses.

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.

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  1. Christopher Pavsek / June 19, 2013 at 11:49 am

    This article doesn’t come close to telling the story on accreditation. You should ask a few basic questions. These would be a start:

    1– What evidence is there that accreditation assures quality? Look at the list of institutions accredited by the NWCCU and you will hardly be able to say they are internationally known, high-quality institutions with excellent reputations and rankings. Further, has, for example, the NWCCU ever revoked accreditation from one of its members? Furthermore, is there any actual evidence that accreditation does what its proponents in Canada claims it will do? Does it attract foreign students? Does it really “resonate” with foreign students and institutions? Do they even notice? I’d be curious if you could drum up actual evidence, other than claims by various proponents of accreditation, that it really does anything.

    2– What are its real costs? You mention the fees the various bodies charge, but what about the hidden costs. Give a call to the University of Washington in Seattle and ask how many full time staff they employ to deal with the various issues surrounding accreditation. When I called them in March, I was told “at least 19.” Translated to an institution the size of SFU, that will add up to far more than the 30k you mention as costs at SFU. In a time when budgets are being slashed, why does there seem to be endless money supplies for hiring more administrative staff to oversee these policies with no proven benefit?

    3: Do these institutions who wish to attract foreign students really need accreditation to do so? At my university, we seem to have no problem attracting international students and in my home province, B.C., there is already a coordinated effort at the provincial level to attract more students. Are the compromises of accreditation really a necessary supplement to what is already working?

    4– What are the real curricular and governance consequences of signing on to an external body for assessment? You mention the resistance at Cap U to the imposition of learning outcomes that comes with accreditation. But this is a huge issue and one that your magazine did not fully explore in its own article on learning outcomes. Think about it: for the supposed benefits that accreditation brings, a university has to impose a uniform set of pedagogical tools on all of its programs, tools that might very well compromise the quality of those programs (which accreditation, ironically, is supposed to protect) as well as compromise the academic freedom that should be the cornerstone of every academic institution.

  2. Terry L. Hill, PhD / June 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    My experience as Director of Education for an international private College, in which Canadian campuses sought ACICS accreditation, was that ‘leveling the playing field’ for recruitment purposes was a myth. Cross-border membership shows no benefits for recruitment, because it lowers, not enhances, competitiveness. The infrastuctural changes that are also required re: hiring criteria, documentation, budget adjustments, and minimal enrollments, etc., set unrealistic and/or irrelevant standards. And the implementation process is extremely disruptive.

  3. James Mars / June 20, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    The accreditation process of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, and

    those in other U.S. regions, leaves much to be

    desired: many of the schools accredited are

    weak, and illustrate the trend in the U.S.,

    and to a lesser extent in Canada, for both the

    public and the private sectors to create

    undergraduate institutions without sufficient

    financial support and institutional development.

    More important to Canadian schools should be their

    charter from the province and their cooperation

    and coordination with other universities and

    community colleges in Canada, particularly in

    their own province. Joining and participating

    in The Association of University and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) should be a very early step by

    any new or revised institution.

    My criticism of “college” accreditation should not

    be confused with accreditation or recognition

    of INDIVIDUAL PROGRAMS BY PROFESSIONAL BODIES!

    While in most cases accreditation by the Canadian

    engineering profession of engineering programs,

    or by Chartered Accounting Institutes of accounting degrees is sufficient, there may be

    cases where going through the review by an

    international body such as the Association of Collegiate Schools of Business is worthwhile.

    But it may be expensive and time-consuming to

    meet their criteria, so young institutions

    will have to weight the costs and benefits.

    As a professor emeritus and former Director of

    the School of Urban and Regional Planning at

    Ryerson, I found that being recognized by the Canadian Institute of Planners and its provincial

    affiliate, the Ontario Professional Planners Institute, a crucial credential for recruiting students and getting the support of employers. Ryerson’s Planning School has been continually

    recognized by the profession since its founding

    (1969–first graduates 1973). It now has 3

    bachelor’s and one master’s degree that are recognized by the professional bodies.

    For decades our school has been involved in the

    Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning,

    (ACSP) which serves the U.S. and Canada with conferences and journals, but does not accredit schools itself. We are also actively involved with the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP). In 1996 Ryerson hosted a huge international conference of planning academics (the second ACSP/AESOP joint conference) here

    in Toronto; it was a great success.

    While several Canadian planning schools have

    sought and received recognition from the American

    Planning Association’s Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) process, Ryerson’s planning school found that maintaining Canadian recognition and following the regular provincial program review process was sufficient; meeting the individual

    membership requirements and carrying out an

    expensive data gathering and site review did not appear to be worthwhile.

    To become PAB accredited has not, as yet, appeared

    to have benefits exceeding the costs in time and money.

    Once again: Most Canadian universities, even the smaller, primarily undergraduate ones, are, by

    U.S. standards, well supported and well-reviewed.

    It is not clear that regional university accreditation is worthwhile; it may even be detrimental. But achieving professional recognition where appropriate is strongly

    supportive of the whole university through the

    strengthening of its individual programs, departments, and schools.

  4. Jack Longmate / July 2, 2013 at 3:54 am

    As an instructor for 20 years at an institution accredited by NWCCU (Olympic College in Bremerton, WA) and as a person who’s filed a complaint with that agency (partially described at http://chronicle.com/article/Education-Dept-Accuses/138273/), my impression is not favorable. I would hope that any British Columbian institution considering accreditation through NWCCU proceed carefully, exploring and heeding the excellent questions raised by posters in response to this article.

    According to a staff person from the Accreditation Division of the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the six regional accreditation agencies (which are private contractors, not governmental entities, NWCCU being one of the six), the chief purpose of the U.S. Department of Education’s oversight is to ensure viability for administering U.S. financial aid, which, of course, would not be relevant for Canadian institutions.  

    At my institution, periodic calls are made to the campus community for participation in preparing “self-study” documents–recently those willing to submit comments were enticed by the chance to win an tablet computer.  While there may be value in this self-examination process, other tasks may be more important.

    Recently, sanctions were imposed on San Francisco City College–the accreditation team found the institution had been treating its faculty too well. It would be a shame if the standards in place at such institutions as Vancouver Community College (see Moira MacDonald’s January 9, 2013 “Sessionals, Up Close” https://www.universityaffairs.ca/sessionals-up-close.aspx) were eroded from the U.S. accreditation process.

    Jack Longmate, M.Ed

    Adjunct English Instructor

    Olympic College, Bremerton, WA USA

  5. William DeWolf / July 7, 2017 at 8:45 am

    I’m looking for a comprehensive list of Canadian colleges/universities that have been accredited by regional accrediting associations in the US.

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