Cyclical Program Reviews and Accreditation Reviews: Key Differences and Guidelines for Alignment

While there may be some overlaps, the Cyclical Program Review (CPR) is a fundamentally different process from accreditation processes for professional programs. Ultimately, where the accreditation review is focused on whether students achieve the minimal benchmark standards for skills, competencies, and knowledge to successfully participate in the profession, the CPR considers a wider range of elements that contribute to the overall quality of the program.

The following table outlines some of the key differences between an accreditation review and the Quality Assurance Framework’s requirements for CPR. Note that each accrediting body has different objectives, areas of focus and processes – this table is meant to provide a broad overview of accreditation processes in general as they relate to the CPR process.

 Cyclical Program Review (as per QAF)Accreditation Review
Overall objectiveContinuous program improvementVerification that minimal benchmarks are met but may also include criteria related to program improvement.
Unit of reviewReview is at the program level. While bundled reviews are permitted, the review must attend to and provide distinct recommendations for each individual program offering within a bundle.Reviews may occur at the department or school level.
Focus of the reviewEvaluation criteria in QAF 2.1.2, including alignment with institutional mission and goals, Degree-Level Expectations, assessment of teaching and learning, human and other resources.Learning outcomes / competencies, student performance, hours of instruction / practical experience, evaluation of facilities, instructor expertise and licensure.

Meeting a set of standards or benchmarks determined by the accrediting body.
StakeholdersStudents, faculty/staff, broader university community, government, employers/society and government.

Tied to the goals of the provincial government and Ontario Council of Academic Vice Presidents.
Accrediting / professional body and employers are the key stakeholders. Students, faculty/staff, and the institution are also stakeholders.
ReviewersAcademic external reviewers with disciplinary expertise and experience in program management.Faculty with disciplinary expertise, industry representatives, and representatives from the accrediting body; may not have program management expertise.

Reviewers are often selected by the accrediting body, using criteria set by the accrediting body, with no input from the institution.
VisitExternal reviewers meet with faculty, students, staff, and administrators, often in groups.

Focus is holistic and the aim of the site visit is to get a sense of the program as a whole. Fact-finding is often reserved for the review of the self-study.
 May focus on granular fact-finding and verification, including analysis of student work and course content.
Reviewers’ ReportExternal evaluation of program quality by disciplinary / interdisciplinary experts including recommendations for the improvement of the degree program.

Addresses the criteria in QAF 5.1.3.
Report on meeting the standards or benchmarks, which may or may not contain recommendations related to the improvement of the degree program.

Aligning a CPR with an Accreditation Review

As described in QAF 5.5, programs that are accredited by a professional body must also undergo a CPR, according to the processes laid out in the institution’s IQAP and the Quality Assurance Framework. However, a university may choose to conduct these reviews concurrently or within up to a year of one another so that some elements of the accreditation review may be repurposed for the CPR (or vice versa). In such cases, a record must be kept of the ways in which some elements of the CPR have been replaced or substituted with elements of the accreditation review. This Record of Substitution and/or Addition may be examined during the Cyclical Audit.

Note that it is highly unlikely that all of the QAF requirements for a CPR / self-study would be satisfied by an accreditation review. In other words, when conducting a CPR concurrently with an accreditation review, there will always be additional elements required in addition to those required for the accreditation review. Universities may ultimately conclude that conducting the CPR separately from the accreditation review is more appropriate in order to ensure that all QAF requirements are met.

Additional Suggestions for Aligning a CPR with an Accreditation Review

  • Programs planning to conduct a CPR concurrently with an accreditation review should do a careful gap analysis to identify which elements of the accreditation review can be repurposed for the CPR, using the QAF and the institution’s IQAP as a basis. It is critical that the CPR self-study and external review address all of the required evaluation criteria as outlined in QAF, as well as the requirements for the self-study outlined in QAF 5.1.1.
  • External reviewers may not fully understand the differences between the accreditation review and the CPR. It may therefore be helpful to clarify the differences in an orientation meeting. An internal member of the review team can also ensure that external reviewers who are more accustomed to conducting accreditation reviews are reminded of the QAF requirements.
  • Some accrediting bodies are open to additional external reviewers, with responsibility for considering the quality assurance requirements, being added to the external review team. In so doing, the university must ensure the QAF’s requirements for the qualifications and composition of the external review team are still being met.
  • Similarly, guidance for external reviewers about how to navigate a concurrent accreditation and cyclical program review can be incorporated into the external reviewers’ report template.
  • Where a large part or all of a CPR’s requirements are deemed as being addressed by an accreditation review, the university must still fulfill the QAF’s requirements for creating, approving and submitting to the Quality Council a Final Assessment Report and Implementation Plan, as well as adhering to the subsequent monitoring steps, as outlined in its IQAP.