International approaches to quality assurance in US higher education

Proposals for accreditation and quality assurance reform in the U.S. often look to international systems for reform cues related to differentiated review, the timing of review cycles, reviewer group composition, review focus, and consequences and reporting. This section briefly reviews international academic audits (including recent reforms to systems that use them) and internal quality assurance systems to provide context for our proposed changes to the U.S. system. These case studies illuminate the benefits of as well as the challenges in creating quality assurance approaches that balance improvement with accountability and efficiency. New developments provide some cues for how a U.S. quality assurance system might better negotiate these tensions.

Several jurisdictions, including Hong Kong, Sweden, the Netherlands, and, until recently, Australia and the UK, use academic quality audits as part of their quality assurance systems. A form of internal quality assurance that gained popularity through the 1990’s and early 2000’s, academic audits typically include a self-study and a site visit (by peers or trained reviewers) to evaluate “education quality processes,” and to determine how faculty members organize their work and use data to make decisions and achieve academic goals. This is not unlike the process in the U.S., though the focus remains more strictly on academics.

Academic quality audits often exist as one part of a larger quality assurance and accreditation system in the countries in which they operate. For example, distinct from the program approval process, the quality assurance process in New Zealand is overseen by the Academic Quality Agency for New Zealand Universities (AQA), which focuses audit cycles on particular components of academic quality and the internal processes for monitoring and improving upon them. After a self-study and peer review, the AQA publishes a report with commendations for improvement, and institutions are held accountable for implementing improvement plans through progress reports and follow-up reviews. Tertiary programs in the non-university sector, such as technical institutes and private training establishments, are approved for inclusion in the New Zealand Qualifications Framework by a separate body, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. In a less process-based and improvement-oriented approach, new entrants are assessed by external reviewers on organizational features and criteria related to nationally-aligned learning outcomes, assessment methods, and resources. Once approved, providers are reviewed periodically based on educational performance and capacity for self-assessment; results of reviews are differentiated and range from closer monitoring to sanctions or other legal actions.

Evaluations of academic audits like those used in New Zealand’s university sector have shown that components of audits, including self-assessments, discussions with regulators, and external recommendations, have increased capacity for self-regulation, strengthened internal quality assurance processes, and changed stakeholder behavior. However, process-based academic audits have also drawn criticism for paying too little attention to standards and outcomes, and for being inefficient, or for being too easily “gamed,” by institutions. For example, a 2008 government review of the Australian Universities Quality Agency, which oversaw quality audits at Australian tertiary education providers in the 1990s and early 2000s, found that academic audits placed too much emphases on processes, made comparisons across institutions difficult, and were insufficiently rigorous.

Responding to these concerns about accountability, efficiency, and comparability, Australia and the UK have supplanted academic audits with more standards-based and risk-based systems, though both approaches are still under development. In Australia’s risk-based system, implemented in 2008 and overseen by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), peer reviewers and external experts assess new entrants on a robust set of threshold quality standards, but tailor the scope and depth of assessment for better-established providers based on their history of providing higher education, their track record of quality, their financial standing, and their performance on a number of risk indicators. The process places a heavy emphasis on outcomes and documentation, and rarely involves a site visit or self-assessment. Institutions that are deemed low-risk during this review are reaccredited and can go as long as seven years before another review; institutions that are deemed higher-risk undergo more frequent, extended reviews based on TEQSA quality standards and are subject to a graduated scale of consequences.

Though reforms in the UK are not as well developed, current plans—as written—balance a differentiated approach with additional “meta”-monitoring of internal quality assurance processes. Under the planned new system, new entrants will be visited and reviewed by a contracted quality assurance agency against baseline regulatory requirements related to how they meet standards set by a national qualifications framework, their financial stability, management, governance, student protection measures, mission, and strategy. This initial review will also identify areas for development to be targeted during a four-year probationary period of extended review and support. Better established providers will undergo a one-time formative review of their internal processes for monitoring and improving student outcomes, as well as annual, differentiated reviews of operations and student outcomes, and five-year reviews of financial viability and internal regulation processes.

While it is too early to assess the efficacy of these new systems in assuring quality and incentivizing institutional learning, the U.K.’s planned approach—which differentiates review and emphasizes the formation of internal quality assurance processes—resembles, in some ways, systems in other European and Asian countries that permit self-accreditation for lower-risk institutions. Under these systems, institutions that demonstrate robust internal quality assurance systems are held to different, typically less burdensome, accreditation requirements, and can self-accredit their own processes or programs. For example, in 2009 the German Accreditation Council made it possible for German institutions to accredit their own academic programs (rather than rely on external accreditation). In order to qualify for “system accreditation,” institutions undergo a self-assessment and peer review, and must meet a number of criteria related to documentation, data, reporting, and assessment.

A number of factors, including the burdensome nature of program accreditation, the growing prevalence of institutional evidence-based decision making, and political pressure for quality enhancement led the German Accreditation Council to push for internal quality assurance options. A study of the internal quality assurance system at Duisberg-Essen, a German university, found that faculty were well supported in their quality work, that the system’s development was strongly incentivized by external quality review mechanisms, and that the internal quality assurance system was embedded in other management processes as part of a larger quality enhancement effort.

Though international developments, many of which are too new to assess, hardly point a clear way forward for a U.S. system, they do illustrate efforts to create systems that incentivize institutional improvement, organizational learning, and self-regulation while improving sector-wide accountability and rigor.

Though international developments, many of which are too new to assess, hardly point a clear way forward for a U.S. system, they do illustrate efforts to create systems that incentivize institutional improvement, organizational learning, and self-regulation while improving sector-wide accountability and rigor. In many cases, international approaches have aimed to achieve these through differentiated systems that use threshold standards and intensive reviews for higher risk-providers (new entrants, poorer performers), and focus more on systems of self-regulation for better established or better performing institutions. Examples and assessments show that approaches that give institutions more autonomy in creating processes and monitoring systems can incentivize institutional learning, but also point to the need for common outcomes standards to assure comparability and accountability.

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