SFU pursues American accreditation

With no Canadian accreditation body, universities look south of the border for stamp of approval

Simon Fraser University has applied for accreditation from the U.S. quality assurance board Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Being the first large research university in Canada to look south of the border for accreditation, the university’s move highlights the fact that Canada lacks any national mechanism for assuring quality of post-secondary institutions.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) academic planning and budgeting director Glynn Nicholls, who is also accreditation project manager, explained that SFU’s need for accreditation is related to its joining the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The university became the first non-U.S. school to be a member of the 100-year-old sports organization when it was accepted as a member in July 2009. SFU’s varsity teams will compete in the Great Northern Athletic Conference, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho.

Yet, member schools of the NCAA must be accredited and Canada offers no national quality assurance process that is comparable to that of the States. Here colleges and universities are approved by provincial governments, which generally do not assess institutions as rigorously as quality assessment bodies like the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NCCU). Since education falls under the provincial government’s jurisdiction, there is no national mechanism to assess institutions, leaving room for much inconsistency across provincial borders. Canada is the only developed country in the world that lacks a national accreditation system for post-secondary schools.

In the absence of an official quality assurance mechanism in Canada, membership in the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada (AUCC)—a national lobby group representing over 90 universities—has served as de facto accreditation. This had had negative ramifications for some students. In the past decade, provincial governments, particularly in B.C. and Alberta, have given some colleges the right to grant bachelor degrees. However, just because the government in one province approves the right of an institution to grant a degree doesn’t mean that degree will be recognized by universities outside of that province, which can be a problem for students pursuing graduate or professional degrees outside their home province.

Many registrars require that bachelor degrees come from institutions that have membership in the AUCC, but not all degree-granting institutions qualify for membership with its emphasis on peer-reviewed research. This puts these colleges in an odd position: their provincial governments say that they are qualified to grant a bachelor’s degree; the national lobbying group for universities says that they are not. There’s no referee to break the impasse.

While this isn’t an issue for SFU, which is a member of the AUCC, Nicholls says it is “unfortunate” that there isn’t any national accreditation in Canada. “If there was a similar process in place, we would be supportive.”

SFU’s academic departments are regularly assessed, according to Nicholls, and the university always performs well in academic assessments. “But there has been a gap when it comes to looking at us at an institutional level,” he says. The NCCU accreditation process will probe SFU’s academics but also its administrative procedures by examining five key standards: SFU’s vision, whether it has the resources and capacity to pursue that vision, its planning processes, how it assesses success, and how it adapts to change.

The NCCU approved SFU’s application in January 2009, which is the first step of accreditation. The process will take another five to seven years before completion.

Over the next year, SFU will complete a detailed self-study then a team of academic peers from American universities will visit the campus. “We feel that this is going to be an enormous benefit to us,” says Nicholls. “We can share best practices with high profile American universities.” U.S. accreditation has other advantages as well, according to VP-academic and accreditation sponsor, Jon Driver. “As we did our homework, it became clear that accreditation could also lead to numerous academic and other non-athletic benefits.”

Accreditation will strengthen SFU’s efforts to recruit international students. “International students are seeking assurance that SFU has accreditation. This will put us on the standing with American universities that they may be considering,” says Nicholls.

With a number of private educational institutions having failed in recent years, accreditation is particularly valuable to universities hoping to distinguish themselves from Canada’s barely regulated private career college sector. For example, when Lansbridge University in Vancouver closed suddenly in 2007, hundreds of international students were left out of pocket for their tuition and with their student visa status in question. “Unfortunately, this has created negative publicity abroad,” says Nicholls.

Although SFU will be the first research university to pursue American accreditation, Athabasca University in Alberta has gained the stamp of approval and Capilano University is more than five years into the seven-year-plus process.

Jackie Snodgrass, VP education at Capilano University, which is not a member of AUCC, agrees that the lax regulation of private schools makes recruitment difficult for public institutions. “With the proliferation of private institutions and few restrictions on using the name ‘college,’ we needed a way to distinguish ourselves as an institution that has gone through a rigorous quality assurance process.”

Although this may have been the primary reason Capilano University pursued accreditation, many unexpected benefits have come of the process. “At first people thought it was busywork,” Snodgrass says. “But then it was a big aha moment for a lot of people who really benefited from the self study.” For instance, academic departments had to evaluate their outcomes in a way they hadn’t previously, which led to increased discussion about best practices in the classroom. “Students ultimately benefit from improved programs.”

Nicholls believes that accreditation will be advantageous to SFU students and alumni alike. “Alumni working in the States will get increased credibility from their degree,” he says. “The improvements will cascade through the institution.”