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The structure of educational accreditation

Liston, Colleen Beverley (1994) The structure of educational accreditation. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Accreditation of educational programmes, which has been carried out in a variety of ways at various levels over the last one hundred years or so in the industrialised Western world, has burgeoned and spread in the last decade or more to encompass almost all programmes and all levels of education, including higher education. This movement at the higher education level seems to have been generated by the political mood towards public accountability of the professions.

Because the practice of accreditation has proliferated and burgeoned in higher education, various manuals describing how to conduct accreditation have been produced to help accreditors carry out their task. The manuals are restricted to describing and prescribing, in a step-by-step fashion, the procedures to be followed; however the assumptions and consequences of accreditation have essentially been taken for granted, it being assumed that the meaning of the term accreditation is self-evident.

This thesis exposes that the meaning of accreditation is indeed not self-evident. Specifically, and among other anomalies, the thesis shows that the accreditation industry appears to run on the assumption that the process of accreditation at least contains the possibility of failure, yet that failure of a programme to be accredited no longer seems to be an option.

The purpose of this thesis is to problematise the nature of accreditation, and to articulate the implied structure and function that goes beyond a description of the process, and to develop a theory of accreditation. The theory developed proposes that educational accreditation is the validation of a programme, and an evaluation of its outcomes. By validation is meant that it is established that the necessary input elements (for example. respectively, qualified staff and students, physical resources, other personnel) are present (or not); by evaluation is meant that it is established that the outcomes are worthy and satisfactory (or not). That is, the judgement may be that the inputs or the outcomes have failed to meet stated requirements.

The validation component of this theory of educational accreditation is relatively straightforward, in that it contains the more or less self-evident assumption of accreditation, that of the required input elements. The evaluation component is relatively complicated in that it has to reconcile simultaneously the empirical evidence that programmes can no longer fail to be accredited, yet encompass a judgement of the worthiness of a programme which, in accreditation, implies the logical possibility of failure. This reconciliation is made, it is observed, by the lack of an option accreditors have to fail any programme as a whole, shifting to failing individuals associated with the programme. This may occur in a number of ways, including failure to graduate or failure to pass an external public examination.

The substantial activity in accreditation, with its implied but not fully articulated rationale, provided a context suitable to undertake a series of case-studies of accreditation. From a methodological point of view, the new changing and dynamic situation provided an opportunity to observe the major factors that play a role in accreditation. An illustrative case of activity in accreditation in a new and changing context is in the medical and allied health professions. This is the case not only in Australia, but in Europe and North America. Therefore, it was opportune to carry out a series of case-studies in this area, with specific emphasis on physiotherapy education. It was found that no single formal accreditation of physiotherapy education programmes in Australia has yet been established. Not only is there no definitive procedure in Australia, but it is the subject of discussion and change for physiotherapy programmes in other countries, in both Europe and North America.

The first case studied was medical education in Australia, where accreditation for medical education programmes in Australia and New Zealand has been recently established. The other case-studies involved allied health education in the United States of America, which is under review, and physiotherapy education in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America.

This thesis characterises the structure of educational accreditation by analysing the processes used in the case-studies. The analysis was carried out in two ways. First, the procedures and conditions of accreditation that were consistently evident in the casestudies were identified. Second, the relationships amongst the procedures and conditions were analysed and abstracted, and characteristics that logically should have been present but were not evident, were identified. The interplay between these two approaches involved identifying, in addition to those characteristics that were similar across casestudies, those that were different but compatible, and those that were not only different, but were seen as incompatible or discrepant.

The structure of educational accreditation is summarised in a template which identifies the elements of accreditation and their interrelationships. In addition to being a summary of the structure and process of accreditation, the template is intended to facilitate accreditation and thereby better satisfy the implied and putative function of accreditation. The template is sufficiently detailed that it includes elements which are characterised as either qualitative or quantitative variables and how they might be assessed in judging whether a programme is satisfactory or not. It does not include suggestions for assessing whether individuals associated with the programme, and towards whom some of the evaluation is shifting, meet publicly defined standards.

Recommendations are made for the application of the template in further studies in order to begin the process of validating the proposed theory of educational accreditation.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Andrich, David and Straton, Ralph
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