Ranking and Accreditation - two roads to the same goal?
Background and themes
Accreditation and ranking have been, until recently, perceived as two separate areas in the sphere of evaluation of higher education, each serving a different purpose. This perception, however, is changing. Though the two still are very different and function separately, there are signs that the borders between accreditation and ranking are getting blurred.
The importance of the idea of quality assurance and accreditation gained significance and have been evolving as a consequence of the phenomenon of massification of higher education. In a growing number of countries up to 50 per cent of high school graduates continue education on the higher level, consequently, it has become necessary to assure that education on the tertiary level meets a certain quality level. This can be achieved by introduction of a quality assurance system through the process of accreditation, that in a number of countries, especially in Europe, is mandatory for higher education institutions. It must be remembered, however, that accreditation, in fact, certifies and confirms that a given higher education institution meets the minimum required standards. In other words, accreditation defines a “bottom line” of the quality level in higher education.
The purpose of academic rankings has been, from the very beginning, to identify the best institution. To achieve this, it has been necessary for the rankers to identify what is it that represents “excellence” in higher education. Originally university rankings were to serve primarily for informational purposes, but over time, rankings have become an effective tool to stimulate better quality in higher education. Rankings provide a fuller picture of a university than accreditation since they take into account more factors and indicators and analyse them deeper. Besides, rankings are updated more often than accreditations, in most cases on an annual basis.
The accreditation is efficient in setting a minimum quality level but alone it does not solve the issue of quality in higher education. Accreditation is not enough to assure competitiveness.
On the other hand, if the accreditation process is more "inert" than ranking, it has a much stronger impact on the faculty management and quality assurance (definition of program outcomes, self- assessment report). The accreditation report is not only a yes/no answer, but it comprises a diagnosis of the institution and programs and a set of recommendations for improvement.
There are other differences between the two; for accreditation institutions have to pay, rankings, as painful for some institutions they may be, are basically free. Again, in many countries accreditation is compulsory, without approval of the state accreditation agency an institution cannot open its doors to students (right to practice). A minimal standard is unconditional while a single institution may have a different ranking across different ranking systems. On the other hand there areas common both for accreditation and rankings.
Accreditation is focused primarily on the quality of teaching, while the rankings are focused on the quality of research. Accreditation measures the quality of the inputs into education while Rankings measure the outcomes of an educational institution. Thanks to the ever increasing measurable data available, we can witness more transparency both in accreditation and rankings. As a consequence, we get a better, more complete and fuller picture of a higher education institution. Many national rankings already take into account accreditations in their methodology, while accreditation organizations carefully study ranking methodologies in order to improve their own procedures.
Lastly, the pressures of new technology and the movement for open data put pressure on both Accreditation and Ranking standards. By working together it is possible to use the best practices of both specialties to maintain strong and consistent educational standards in growing and quickly evolving landscape of higher education.
The aim of the IREG-9 Conference “Accreditation and rankings – Two roads to the same goal?” will be to analyze the relations between accreditation and rankings in the context of challenges facing higher education and its quality. These relations will be discussed both on the regional level (continent) and on the discipline level (such as engineering or medicine).
The IREG-9 Conference in Hasselt will be a pioneering event where the World of Accreditation will meet the World of Ranking. This, the organizers believe, will contribute to the World of Quality in higher education.