Reviewing Academic Programs that also Are Subject to External Accreditation

The Quality Assurance Framework indicates that a “University IQAP may allow for the substitution or addition of documentation or processes associated with the accreditation of a program , for components of the institutional program review process, when it is fully consistent with the requirements established in the Quality Assurance Framework. A record of substitution or addition, and the grounds on which it was made, will be eligible for audit by the Quality Council.” (Section 4.2.7)

How a university approaches the question of whether to combine, coordinate or completely segregate the reviews depends on a number of factors including:

  • levels and complexity of program offered (undergraduate, graduate, professional)
  • review cycle
  • qualifications required for reviewers
  • evaluation criteria
  • issues currently facing program and university

The Quality Council noted in its review of IQAP submissions that only one institution specified that accreditation and cyclical program reviews would be undertaken through a single process using the same reviewers. On the other hand, most IQAPs specified that reviews of undergraduate and graduate programs would be undertaken together, where feasible.

Combining cyclical program review and accreditation reviews can be challenging given the different purposes and evaluation criteria that apply. A recent UNESCO glossary of basic terms and definitions for quality assurance and accreditation describes accreditation as a process by which a program or institution is evaluated to determine if it meets certain pre-determined minimal criteria or standards. In contrast, quality assurance processes are described as on-going and continuous evaluation for the purpose of quality improvement. Quality assurance processes include assessing, monitoring, guaranteeing, maintaining and improving. One common characteristic of both accreditation and quality assurance cyclical program review is the development of a self-study by the program undergoing review.

Most university IQAPs contained very brief descriptions of how cyclical review of accredited programs would be undertaken. Many indicated that they would be coordinated so that the academic unit was able to capitalize on the common data to be used in self-studies for each type of review with reviews scheduled close to one another but not at the same time.

The Quality Council noted that Lakehead University and the University of Guelph provided particularly clear guidance on how decisions will be made in their IQAPs (Lakehead University’s IQAP is quoted below for easy reference):

“In cases where the professional program accreditation standards mesh fairly well with the standards set out in the Lakehead University IQAP, components of the accreditation may be applied to the University’s undergraduate program review process. Prior to the start of an accreditation review, the Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) will be provided with a copy of the accreditation review template to compare with the Lakehead University IQAP. The Deputy Provost in consultation with the SAC-QA, will review the guidelines for the accreditation process and determine if, and how, the two assessment processes should be integrated, ensuring compliance with the provisions of the IQAP. The Deputy Provost will then meet with the Dean of the Faculty(s) to review and discuss the guidelines for the accreditation, the degree of alignment or overlap between the accreditation process and the undergraduate program review process, and to determine what additional materials or processes may be necessary. Such discussions should have occurred at the time when work begins by a Unit to prepare for the accreditation process.”

The outcome of comparison and discussion may be that:

  1. The accreditation review will be accepted as meeting all the criteria for the cyclical program review. The final report of the accrediting body will be submitted directly to the Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) and a Final Assessment Report, which provides a synthesis of the external accreditation report and internal responses and assessments, will be drafted by the Deputy Provost, with input and support from the Head of the Academic Unit responsible for the program(s) and the Dean(s); or
  2. The accreditation review will be accepted as meeting most of the criteria the cyclical program review. Some supplementary information will need to be submitted to Deputy Provost along with the final report of the accrediting body. A Final Assessment Report, which provides a synthesis of the external accreditation report, supplementary information, and internal responses and assessments, will be drafted by Deputy Provost, with input and support from the Head of the Academic Unit responsible for the program(s) and the Dean(s); or
  3. The accreditation review will not sufficiently meet the requirements of the cyclical program review and the process involved with the regular cyclical undergraduate program review will proceed as scheduled.” (Source: Lakehead University Institutional Quality Assurance Process, March 28, 2011)

One of the strengths of the IQAP cited above is that it names the authority who will review the IQAP evaluation criteria and the accreditation review to determine to what extent the latter may be useful in the cyclical program review.

As universities gain experience with periodic reviews guided by their IQAP, it is anticipated that more examples of best practice with respect to the cyclical review of accredited programs will be forthcoming.