By Ángela Corengia
In Argentina, ever since the National Commission for University Assessment and Accreditation (CONEAU, for its Spanish acronym) was created in 1995, a number of university evaluation as well as undergraduate and graduate program accreditation processes have been launched.
Until the mid-1990s, institutional self-evaluation experiences had been very limited, and the introduction of assessment activities to university policies were resisted by public university officials –albeit with some exceptions. Traditional private universities, having overcome a long period of Education Ministry oversight, also voiced their concern for the new regulations.
That was not the case of basic and applied sciences’ academic communities, which, starting with the creation of the Graduate Program Accreditation Commission (CAP) and the Fund for Quality Improvement (FOMEC), found new public funding sources for quality enhancements dependent upon external assessment processes and improvement program formulation. Both FOMEC and CAP paved the way for CONEAU creation.
Now, nearly twenty years after CONEAU’s inception, the time has come to do some research to move past assumptions and proxies to empirical evidence on players’ views on this new assessment phenomenon.
This report intends to disseminate the views of institutional players –primarily public and private universities’ officials– on CONEAU’s performance and its impact on higher education institutions.
Four universities were selected according to management type (two public and two private universities), size (two large/medium-sized and two small ones), creation date (two old universities and two created after the 1990s), and location (two from Argentina’s hinterlands and two located in Buenos Aires City’s metropolitan area).
Constant criteria taken into account included the fact that sample universities had implemented the three processes to be measured: institutional assessment, graduate program accreditation, and undergraduate program accreditation (universities featuring accredited undergraduate programs on medicine and/or engineering, as these fields were the first to be included in the mandatory accreditation public scheme). Every case shows the following characteristics: 48 interviewees (chancellors, deans, academic heads, program heads, and personnel involved in assessment and accreditation processes) from all four universities (1) private, small university created in the 1990s and located in Buenos Aires; 2) large public university –one of the oldest ones in Argentina– located in the hinterlands; 3) private, medium-sized university created in the 1960s and located in the hinterlands, and 4) medium-sized public university created in the 1990s and located in Buenos Aires) report being in favor of the existence of external systems to evaluate and certify university quality.
This study next reports on the views and opinions of 48 officials from the universities selected. As regards the existence of assessment and accreditation systems for universities, case 1 argues about the “need” to control educational quality and how important it is to build external mechanisms that ensure reflection and measurement of current undertakings. Assessment is viewed as both critical and essential for university activities.
Interviewees at case 2 note the importance of an outside approach to complement self-evaluations as well as the need to ponder strengths and weaknesses, adding that this is a worldwide trend.
At case 3, the opinion of a top official is especially noteworthy, as he points out that, at first, they were very “skeptical” and “reluctant”, but experience has shown that these systems are “beneficial for the university, as it sometimes tends to clam up, to encroach in itself.”
For interviewees in this case, assessment and accreditation systems prove significant to streamline processes, to drive internal reflection, to compare and look for continued improvement. They state that “they have” to be in place, as they are “instrumental” and “a must-have”, adding that a university system without these processes makes no sense. Also, they claim that, if the State is in charge of this assessment, this process is even more justified at public universities, as the State should know how its money is spent and to what ends.
Finally, case 4 interviewees view this scheme as “beneficial for the university itself and for the system” as well as “a sound strategy for ongoing improvement.”
Players’ views on CONEAU’s performance and Argentina’s university assessment and accreditation system reflect a number of strengths and weaknesses that should be taken into account to enhance the current system.
It should be noted that no significant differences were found in views on quality improvement as a result of institutions’ management type, size or age, except in the case of public universities, on account of their access to improvement funding (PROMEI) for engineering programs that underwent an accreditation process –this funds are not available for private universities. The differences found are more associated with case specificities in terms of institutional responses. In other words, the impact varies according to the way, the attitude and the culture with which academic units and chancellors’ offices “institutionally” respond to these processes.