ACCREDITATION: Why so much confusion?

In the wake of the recognition of academic programmes offered by various tertiary institutions in Mauritius, a lot has been said on the subject of accreditation. Those who are conversant with the subject matter will agree with me that only half of the truth has been exposed. The main issue has in fact never been put forward, I suppose not to create further embarrassments to our institutions. The intention of this article is to shed light on the main issue with the hope that the public will be enlightened and the authorities will do something about it. Coming from and engineering background I will use engineering programmes as an example for illustration, but I suppose same will apply to all academic programmes leading to professional qualifications viz LLBs, MBBS, etc...
Accreditation Defined
The following definitions of the term accreditation within the context of engineering programmes, may be useful here to better illustrate whatthe issue is all about:
(i) The Engineering Council of UK defines accreditation as the process of reviewing an engineering degree programme to judge whether or not it meets the defined standards set by the Engineering Council. It is a judgement as to whether the graduate is adequately prepared to start on a career as a professional engineer, (http://www.engc.org.uk/)
(ii) The National Board for Accreditation in India defines accreditation as a process of quality assurance, whereby an engineering programme in an approved institution is critically appraised at intervals not exceeding six years to verify that the institution programmes meet the norms and standards prescribed by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), established by an Act of the parliament in 1987. (http://www.nba-india.org/)
(iii) The European Federation of National Engineering Associations define accreditation as the primary quality assurance process used to ensure the suitability of an educational programme as the entry route to the engineering profession. Accreditation involves a periodic audit, against published standards, of the engineering education provided by a particular course or programme. It is essentially a peer review process undertaken by appropriately trained and independent panels comprising both engineering teachers and engineers from industry. The process normally involves both scrutiny of data and a structured visit to the educational institution, (www.feani.org)
(iv) The Council for Higher Education Accreditation in the US refers accreditation as a collegiate process of self study and external peer review for quality assurance, accountability, and quality improvement of an academic institution or program designed to determine whether or not it has met. or exceeded, the published standards of its accrediting association and is achieving its mission and stated purpose, (http://www.chea.org/)
Readers can of course refer to further definitions of the term from across the world and would realize that the definitions have two common elements:
1- The existence of an independent statutory body which has the mandate for the accreditation of engineering programmes.
2 - Development of prescribed norms and standards by the profession or its Council/Association against which accreditation is granted.
These commonalities between the definitions of the term accreditation has led various countries to establish the local independent statutory body with the specific mandate of developing the norms and standards to be achieved in engineering education and for ensuring that engineering graduates from tertiary institutions do meet these norms and standards on graduation. Some examples of the independent statutory bodies conducting accreditation of engineering programmes include The European Network for Accreditation of Engineering Education (ENAEE) dealing with accreditation in Europe, Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology dealing with accreditation in the US and the National Board for Accreditation set up by the All India Council for Technical Education dealing with accreditation of engineering programmes in India.
The more so, countries which have established the norms and standards and conduct accreditation as per international practice qualify to join the Washington Accordwhich is a multi-lateral agreement between 15 countries (Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Taipei, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand. Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States of America) allowing for mutual recognition of the engineering programmes and most importantly mobility of engineering graduates. Bangladesh, China. India, Pakistan, Philippines and Sri Lanka currently have provisional membership to the Washington Accord.
What is the Main Issue?
The main issue is whether the local engineering programmes are accredited according to the norms and standards for international engineering practice. The answer is a clear NO. Mauritius is not even an applicant to the Washington Accord and even if wished to apply for membership, we will not qualify; meaning our local graduates, however good they are, qualify to practice only in Mauritius. Why? Simply because of our present legislation.
In its quest to have more authority and more power (common jargon in Mauritius), the Tertiary Education Commission had its Act amended in 2005 to include among its mandate the authority 10 accredit academic programmes. TEC’s definition of accreditation is as follows:
‘Accreditation in relation to an institution or an educational programme, means confirmation that the institution or the educational programme satisfies the minimum criteria or standards for it to operate or he offered during a specified duration’
This definition is way far from what accreditation is all about. Itsimply cannot be compared to what is prescribed internationally. In the definition, institutions and academic programmes have been lumped together and the damning part of it is that what should have read ‘approval’ has been most probably, deliberately replaced by “accreditation’. By doing so, TEC decided to take up part of the mandate of the Medical Council, the Bar Council the Council of Registered Professional engineers among others which it obviously cannot deliver on. It has neither the expertise not the competences for accreditation. As far as I know, no attempt has been made by TEC so far to accredit any of the engineering programmes within the public institutions. TEC has not even prescribed the norms and standards required of our engineering graduates to practice as an engineer. The same probably applies to the other professions.
International Trend
As far as I am aware, the international trend in higher education is to produce graduates for international mobility. I was particularly surprised to hear a high official in the tertiary sector saying that ‘the programmes are recognized in Mauritius and it’s sufficient’ or ‘we are not bothered by international recognition’. This is very cheap for a country aiming to set up an educational hub, aiming to have one graduate per family and most importantly aiming at 100000 foreign students within the next few years.
In spite of TEC and its ill framed definition and intention on accreditation, it is worth noting the commendable initiative of the University of Mauritius to embark on accreditation of its engineering programmes by the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA, a member of the Washington Accord). The process started in 2012, is expected to complete in 2016.
Assuming that accreditation is obtained through ECSA, our engineering graduates will still not qualify for international mobility as we are not signatory to the Washington Accord. We will certainly not be a signatory as long at the mandate for accreditation rests on TEC.
I would like to mention two criteria spelt out in the Washington Accord for entry into that forum:
(i) The signatories to the Accord must be authorities, agencies or institutions which are representative of the engineering community and which have statutory powers or recognised professional authority for accrediting programs designed to satisfy the academic requirements for admission to practicing status (e.g. licensing, registration or certification) within a defined jurisdiction (e.g. country, economy, geographic region).
(ii) Any such authority, agency or institution must be independent of government and the educational providers delivering accredited programs within their jurisdiction.
We disqualify on both fronts because of the amendment brought to TEC Act in 2005. TEC is neither representative of the engineering community nor independent of government.
The Way Forward
The above illustration pertains to the engineering profession. But the arguments are equally valid for other professions such as legal, medical, architectural etc...
I can see no other option than to revert back to the days before the amendment was brought to the TEC Act with regards to accreditation. The correct wording to be used in the TEC Act is ‘approval’ in lieu of ‘accreditation’, which is exactly what TEC doesand they are probably good at it (listening to its Secretary to the Board). It’s up to Minister Jeetah now.
The other initiative should come from the Council/Association of Professional bodies who should publicize the norms and standards expected of graduates to qualify for practicing as professionals in their respective fields. The Council/Association of professional bodies should equally come up with the statutory/regulatory framework for the accreditation of academic programmes falling under their purview.
l am aware that the Council of Registered Professional Engineers and the Institution of Engineers have for instance published the norms and standards expected of engineering graduates and have-even proposed the legal/regulatory framework for accreditation as part of the review of the Act governing the Council of Registered Professional Engineers. Minister Baichoo has a golden opportunity here to set records straight and mandate the Engineering Council to conduct accreditation of engineering programmes in Mauritius as is the international practice.
Hoping that common sense prevails...
DR DINESH KUMAR HURREERAM