New Group to Serve as Forum for Global Academic-Quality Issues

September 13, 2012

As higher education goes global, a new organization will serve as a forum for issues of international accreditation and quality assurance, from the regulation of overseas branch campuses to the oversight of free online courses.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, known as CHEA, announced on Thursday the formation of the CHEA International Quality Group, a membership organization that will serve as a venue both for common quality-assurance challenges faced by countries around the globe and for those that arise as universities' activities increasingly cross international borders.

"At this juncture, we've got to understand one another," said Judith S. Eaton, president of CHEA, an association that represents 3,000 colleges and recognizes 60 accrediting organizations in the United States.

There is often, however, little understanding about accreditation and oversight from country to country. Recently, for example, Chinese officials have suggested they may need to do more to regulate their overseas university partners after an American institution, Dickinson State University, was found to have awarded degrees to hundreds of foreign students who failed to complete academic requirements. The U.S. government's shutdown last year of a sham California university that operated as a visa mill led many in India, where the closure was front-page news, to question American oversight of higher education. And some American universities have balked at offering degrees abroad because of uncertainty about quality-assurance systems in other countries and confusion over how American accrediting agencies will evaluate their overseas activities.

In an interview, Ms. Eaton said she hopes the new group will serve as a setting to discuss those sorts of thorny issues. Other topics, she said, could include what role accrediting bodies in different countries should play in assessing whether higher education leads to work-force development and how to ensure quality as the number of massive open online courses, or MOOC's, explodes.

Those giant online courses have "instantly become global," said Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, a consultant to the new group and a former chief of the quality-assurance section of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. "There are new challenges that come up all the time."

The new organization, Ms. Uvalic-Trumbic said, could foster better understanding of the academic, cultural, and structural differences, and similarities, among higher-education systems worldwide.

The new group will be open to accredited American colleges, universities abroad recognized by the quality-assurance associations in their home countries, accrediting bodies sanctioned or recognized by governments, higher-education organizations, government agencies, businesses, and foundations. It will have a 20-member advisory council made up of representatives of those different groups, to be appointed by the CHEA board.

CHEA member institutions will automatically be able to take part in the group, while others will be asked to pay a nominal fee, of $500 to $1,500, to join. In addition to holding regular international meetings, the group will produce a newsletter, issue research briefs, and offer fee-for-service consulting services.