What is Accreditation in Higher Education?
Accreditation of Higher Education (HE) institutions and their respective programmes is a rigorous quality assurance process that evaluates and verifies that these maintain applicable and recognised standards. The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of HE meets acceptable levels of quality. Therefore, accreditation is a quality assurance process that educational organisations and their academic programmes undergo to confirm that they meet specific operational and academic criteria and standards respectively. Inevitably, the process of earning and maintaining accreditation in HE provides institutions and programmes with a direction towards excellence.
The term and meaning of ‘Excellence’ in HE has been extensively used by accreditors to define the level of quality processes and services offered by institutions for the stakeholders’ satisfaction and students’ success. In a globalised context and with the internationalisation and cross-border HE as well as the growing need to quality assure HE, researchers emphasised that ‘Excellence’ is achieved based on the quality of the curriculum, teaching and learning, infrastructure and resources, support services, leadership and management and level of research. Excellence in HE can be globally defined and applied through the following models: a) the EFQM Excellence Model b) the Baldrige Model and c) Other Models.
In most countries the accreditation of HE institutions is conducted and handled often by their Ministry of Education or other government entities. In the US accreditation is voluntary and it is assessed and given by private, non-governmental accrediting agencies that have been created specifically to review HE institutions and programmes. These external accreditation agencies are reviewed and recognized by entities such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) along with the United States Department of Education (USDE), which hold quality standards of their own.
Accreditation in HE relates to either or both the institution and its individual programmes of study. Institutional accreditation refers to the evaluation of educational institutions by accreditation agencies that assess their performance and compare themselves with other educational institutions. If an institution is awarded accreditation it means that it meets certain and minimum standards of educational quality overall, including its vision, strategy, leadership and governance, programmes and resources. The second type, programmatic accreditation, is the accreditation of programmes of study within an institution by professionally specialised accrediting bodies. The idea in programmatic accreditation is that professionals in a specific field evaluate a programme’s educational quality. For instance, Law Schools are accredited by various Bar Associations locally and/or internationally. There are cases that recognition of programmes by professional bodies is a prerequisite for obtaining a job in areas such as, Psychology or Law, for example. Often, but not always, many programmatic accreditors (such as the APA) require that accredited programmes be housed in an institutionally accredited institution. It is the case, often, that candidates still need to acquire a licence to practice a profession through examinations after they graduate; this practice should not be confused with accreditation.
Comprehensive lists of accredited educational institutions are provided, for example, by the European ENIC-NARIC Network (National Academic Recognition Information Centers), the UNESCO IAU (International Association of Universities), CHEA International Database which include educational organisations recognized by their corresponding Ministry of Education.
Why is accreditation important?
Accreditation is important and valuable because it determines whether institutions and their programmes meet or exceed pre-defined demonstrable quality standards. Evidently, accreditation increases trust and confidence and boosts the accountability of the accredited institutions in the provision of quality education. Furthermore, accreditation provides institutions and their programmes of study the opportunity for self-definition, reflection, evaluation, ongoing improvement to ensure that they meet or exceed standards developed and acceptable in the field. Accreditation is a continuous process and institutions have to be vigilant and maintain threshold standards so that they do not lose accreditation. When an institution loses its accreditation status, then its students can often experience negative consequences. Consequently, accreditation is also a status as much as it is a process.
Moreover, accreditation provides assurance to prospective students and to the public that educational institutions meet education quality standards in the global market. Accreditation helps students determine acceptable institutions for enrolment. Accredited HE institutions allow their graduates to gain admission to other reputable HE institutions or achieve credentials for professional practice. Accreditation enables transferable credits from one institution to another reputable institution. Employers hire graduates of accredited institutions and programmes which means that these graduates possess and can demonstrate specific skills and abilities reflected in the accreditation criteria and that they are ready to practice at a certain level. Thus, employers determine the validity and credibility of the academic programmes from which a candidate has graduated and they often require evidence that applicants received a degree from an accredited institution or programme of study. Accredited institutions and their academic programmes are preferred to unaccredited ones, therefore, an accredited degree is absolutely essential for a career one deserves. Finally, the advantages of accreditation are being recognised throughout the world.
Unicaf University in Malawi and Zambia are accredited by the national Higher Educational Authorities, HEA and NCHE respectively, and both universities are also accredited by the British Accreditation Council (BAC) as an Independent Higher Education Provider. Unicaf University in Uganda is accredited by The Uganda National Council for Higher Education (NCHE). In addition, the degrees that Unicaf offers with its partner universities are internationally recognised.
Diploma Mills and Accreditation Mills
Fake educational institutions (companies) and accrediting agencies, Diploma or Degree Mills and Accreditation Mills respectively, offer degrees to students in exchange for money and little academic work and deceive them about the validity and credibility of the degree they receive. Diploma Mills and Accreditation Mills harm the educational journey and prohibit people to advance their career because employers prefer graduates from accredited institutions and programmes. Prospective students should be extremely careful when choosing educational institutions and programmes for their studies. Spotting fake educational institutions and accrediting agencies can be done through several and useful websites that provide lists of unaccredited institutions and agencies with specific tips of how to recognise them. Currently, diploma mills are still booming: in 2017 World Education Services revealed that there are 2,600 estimated diploma mills globally. Only in the US, diploma mills take an estimated $200 million per year. In 2018 the BBC revealed that thousands of UK nationals bought fake degrees from a diploma mill in Pakistan whereas just a few days ago recognition of PhDs from a US-based university was withdrawn by Rwanda’s Higher Education Council (HEC).
Finally, prospective students should be extremely careful when they decide to enrol in an institution to pursue their studies and invest on their education and subsequently on their career. Accredited institutions and programmes are the key to success.