Should universities self-accredit?

It’s a pity the terms of reference for the Senate’s academic freedom inquiry were confused and implicitly threatening interference in academic affairs, because this has brought out the reflexive defensiveness of academics, rather than encouraging them to reflect critically on university practices.

An op-ed in this morning’s Age by University of Sydney academic Ben Saul is a case in point. While he correctly, in my view, argues that students with views contrary to those of academics are rarely treated unprofessionally, his argument on existing mechanisms for controlling bias or prejudice among academics will not reassure sceptics.

For research, he argues that peer review ‘maintains rigorous academic standards’. But peer review is a far from failsafe mechanism. The editors and others who send manuscripts out for peer review may not know the best people to contact, or may not be able to persuade them to act as referees. So expertise may be lacking. Partly because it is anonymous, academics (and others) put very varying levels of effort into it. I’ve come across plenty of refereed publications with multiple factual errors, particularly when I was working on ‘economic rationalism’. Unfortunately, very few academic students of economic rationalism knew very much about economics. With authors and referees as ignorant as each other, errors went undetected.

But at least peer review for research is better than what happens with course materials. Saul tells us that:

As for teaching, there are accepted conventions for formulating curriculums and procedures for approving new courses.

By ‘accepted conventions’ he means that universities all agree that they should accredit their own courses – a situation that involves a serious conflict of interest. In vocational courses there may be external accreditation by professional admissions bodies, but in other courses – especially the Arts courses that generate most of the claims of bias – academics tick off courses devised by their colleagues. It is this system of the same institution enrolling students, devising course materials, setting exams, marking exams and then awarding a credential that leads to the constant criticism of ‘dumbing down’ and ‘soft marking’.

I don’t think governments should be in the business of accrediting university courses, but more widespread third-party accreditation would be a significant improvement on assurances from academics that nothing is wrong, and that criticisms are just culture wars angst.

16 thoughts on “Should universities self-accredit?

  1. I think you’ll find that at least for decent journals, there is a huge bias against publishing articles of all kinds — many really good articles get rejected as well as the bad ones (it’s the reverse of publishing too much). So it’s mainly the tree killers which is the problem (many of which exist simply so people can play numbers games invented by governments, like DEST points), so the problem is really distinguishing between good and bad journals, which not surprisingly, the public finds almost impossible to do (e.g., in general psychology, Psychological Review is probably the top journal, but Psychology Research and Psychological Reports are tree killers).
    As for course material, you are always in a bit of bind — a large proportion of students want easy courses where they don’t do anything (e.g., read anything, turn up to tutorials and lectures), and you must cater for these guys once they are high enough in number, which is basically most undergraduate courses in all universities as far as I can tell (I know one guy teaching English literature that complains most students never read the books!!). If you give harder courses, you get punished for it via student satisfaction surveys — which is one of the big problems of the CEQ — so of course people are not going to do this. You should have a look at the difficulty ratings students give courses if you can get your hands on them — You’ll be surprised how easy almost all courses are rated, so you either have very smart students, excellent teachers that convey difficult concepts in extraordinarily good fashion or most courses only teach really easy stuff (take your pick).
    Also, I’m not sure why people complain only about Arts courses — many maths and science courses have also been dumbed down, although perhaps it’s political bias people are really concerned about, or perhaps the people that complain simply don’t understand enough maths and science to know.

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  2. In his senate submission Ben Saul has proposed that Australia copy the NZ legislation in regard to academic freedom. It is my understanding, however, that NZ academics are legally prevented from criticising the local Moari treaty. If true, hardly an example of academic freedom – rather a disgraceful restriction on freedom of speech.

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  3. Conrad – I am sure students complain about courses in every faculty, but the scope for political bias is greatest in Arts.

    But your comments about dumbing down reinforce my overall point in the post. There is very little evidence either way on these constant allegations, but the reason there is no evidence is that quality is a completely in-house assessment.

    Sinclair – I have not read his submission, but surely he is headed towards contradiction: as soon as you say government has a direct role in academic affairs, surely they are entitled to ensure professionalism as well as ‘academic freedom’?

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  4. Why is there a need for accreditation by anybody? Nobody has to take academics’ assurances at face value – it’s not as if universities are secret societies. Students will sort out quality problems via the market. If there’s a demand for easy and/or politically slanted courses then why should universities not be allowed to meet it?

    If there is a need for accreditation then it seems to me the state is best placed to provide it, with all its faults. At least there would be a minimum level of transparency and accountability via the usual political processes. Giving the task to ‘third party accreditation’ just seems to add another layer of administrative complexity to a process that is already very time-consuming with no net benefits. It might solve some of the problems you mention but risks introducing new ones, including the fundamental one of basic competence to do the job.

    I write as someone who has recently participated in just such a third party accreditation process, where many of the requirements were more concerned with practitioner fads and fashions than with genuine scholarship. Third party accreditation seems to me to be another step towards turning university education into competency-based training.

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  5. Ken – In some markets, there are inherent information problems, in that the information needed for good decisions is not readily available. Education is one of them because students make a significant commitment for a service for which its quality or lack thereof will only gradually become apparent to them. In other markets, intermediaries have evolved to provide market participants with greater information, such as in investment markets. In higher education this has not happened, and people fall back on brands instead.

    I agree that accreditation can be of doubtful competence, and I would not mandate a monopoly accreditor. I am not sure that self-accreditation should be stopped, but students are entitled to draw their own conclusions about institutions that simply adopt a ‘trust me’ approach.

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  6. Andrew – I agree. It’s all confused and contradictory. An inqury into Universities is important – yet this one has vague and confused terms of reference.

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  7. Yes, I agree that mandatory accreditation would be undesirable. Many universities are already trying to use voluntary international accreditation to position themselves in the market, but it’s not at all clear that many students will be any more informed about matters that are important to them. For example, the requirement that teaching staff have PhDs gives no useful information about the quality of the teaching.

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  8. So, Ken you don’t like accreditation and you don’t think Phd’s are a useful measure. What exactly do you want then?

    ……..using your train of logic then… we shouldn’t see doctors when we’re sick because having a medical degree doesn’t prove a doctor will be any good.

    You can always blame Howard and the Republicans, Ken.

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  9. JC -PhDs are research degrees based on a highly specialised original contribution to knowledge. Most undergraduate courses teach standard, non-cutting edge broad knowledge. A PhD is no evidence that the teacher has either teaching skills or the relevant knowledge.

    It’s a quite different argument to the one that claims universities are simply screening institutions, credentialing those who are bright and persevere, rather than the acquisition of useful knowledge.

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  10. Andrew:

    I agree that not all Phd’s are cut out for teaching in the same way as not all med graduates are cut out for doctoring. However like all doctors most academics have a higher level degree than basic under grad. that’s what i recall from a number of years ago unless that’s changed.

    To some extent universities are largely performing a screening. With the exception of real specialist fields, most people don’t really use their degree after obtaining a job. I didn’t. However it did help me get a foot in the door of the first job.

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  11. “A PhD is no evidence that the teacher has either teaching skills”

    true, but university isn’t school. Students should be presented with the material and then they should teach themselves the finer points, IMO.

    “or the relevant knowledge”

    Mostly false. Most PhD students nowadays have to pass exams in advanced subjects in their discipline before doing their research.

    On accreditation, this must already happen in medicine and dentistry. The health authorities want to be sure that the medical graduates know what they are doing. With philosophy graduates it’s not such a life or death issue.

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  12. Spiros – Medicine would be relatively low in teaching staff with PhDs, because practitioners are more heavily involved than in other faculties. Technical skill is more important than research ability.

    American PhDs have coursework as routine. I haven’t seen any studies of cousework in PhDs here, but I doubt it is anywhere near a majority.

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  13. “Medicine would be relatively low in teaching staff with PhDs”
    Is that really true? My bet is that many have clinical doctorates or PhDs, which are becoming almost a prerequisite for many of the specialities (but medical PhDs are somewhat different — you can get them in a much shorter time than those in other areas).

    “I haven’t seen any studies of cousework in PhDs here”
    I’m under the impression that most PhDs in Australia do have some things like seminars, workshops and so on, it’s just that the amount of time people spend on them is far less than the US. That being said, in some clinical areas, combined clinical training (often counting for a masters degree) with a PhD is common, which becomes essentially equivalent to the American PhDs.

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  14. Conrad – Seminars and workshops on areas as obscure as the student’s own, in my experience and observation.

    I can’t find stats on qualifications by discipline. U of M school of medicine unhelpfully describes staff as ‘Dr’.

    My impression was they did teaching on the cheap by giving practitioners status-boosting academic titles but not paying them very much.

    There are two groups here – those who teach on campus and those who teach in hospitals and clinics. I imagine the on-campus teachers are more likely to have PhDs.

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  15. Medical PhDs are strange beasts. Many Professors and leading researchers in medicine would not have a PhD although their research is clearly an original contribution to knowledge.

    Medical graduates are also taught in the areas they are going to practice in – by the time an Eye registrar qualifies then they will have successfully done about 200 cataracts or more. In addition then they have to be College Certified and further they should be also credentialled by the workplace. Then in most good places they will be peer reviewed continuously.

    Medical training is not really representative of University “skills” “training” education but is a mix of education, TAFE, Craft, apprenticeship, competency, on the job training, continuing training combined with outside assessment and regular government and public scrutiny.

    Somewhere on another thread is mentioned exam based certification and the fact that people can’t remember old stuff. Tests /exams for overseas trained medicos can be liek this – easy enough to pass for a very recent graduate – extemely difficult for an experienced accomplished person.

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  16. I’m a first year medical student at UQ. Most of our lectures and learning resources are not given by medical doctors but by researchers in some other field ie physiology, anatomy, epidemiology etc. This makes sense since they would have more specialised knowledge about the topic. The exception to this is pathology, in which the lecturer is usually a doctor that has subsequently been awarded an “MD” by the university. As I understand it, MD is given on the basis of a substantial contribution to research in a particular field.

    Our tutors are doctors. I’m not sure about the clinical educators in later years, but I would suspect that most do not have phds.

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