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Colección: La Educación
Número: (129-131) I,III
Año: 1998

Evaluation and Accreditation

Within the context of a political vacuum and university autonomy, creation of a national system of institutional evaluation and accreditation has become the primary mechanism to redefine and strengthen the relation between the university and society in an era in which democracy, privatization and free-market competition have taken on determinant roles. As stated in Misión, evaluation will (presumably) “guarantee conditions of relationship between society and university, integrate the university system into the global society and promote a more equitable and efficient distribution of financial resources.” Such a redefinition requires a new role for the state: that of guarantor of quality. This role, Misión argues, requires the state to supervise universities through evaluation—in other words by remote control. Thus, attempts to establish an accreditation system may also be viewed as means to reshape the existing concept of university autonomy. It should be noted that establishment of an accreditation system is a state activity in Ecuador only to the extent that CONUEP and its offspring, Sistema de Evaluación y Acreditación Universitaria (SEAU), which was established to develop the evaluation system, is an official state established organization. Evaluation will lead to differentiation of mission among universities, which does not now exist. In part, evaluation will accomplish this by creating competition (for funding, recognition and status, probably not for faculty or students) between universities—something that does not now exist. Competition, it is generally believed, will force universities to improve or to shut down programs.

In CONUEP’s proposal, accreditation of universities is the process by which an organization publicly recognizes a university as result of periodic evaluation. As conceptualized in the proposed system, the difference between institutional evaluation and accreditation is that internal evaluation is done by comparing outcomes with goals and objectives set by the university, whereas accreditation is achieved in relation to a standardized model created by a group of universities (CONUEP 1994). In early drafts of the actual evaluation document, a distinction is made between institutional self-study and the accreditation process as if they were two separate processes (Carvajal 1996; Falconí 1996).

Misión also proposed creation of a national data information system on higher education. Although such a data system is desperately needed, its relation to institutional evaluation and accreditation is unclear and potentially contradictory. Secondly, Misión recommends establishment of an independent (theoretically objective) organization to direct institutional evaluation and accreditation.

The influential Misión document had been published before I visited Ecuador in the summer of 1995 as a Fulbright lecturer on university administration. On one hand, individual university administrators seemed generally confused and resistant to the idea of self-study and evaluation. Many universities said they were already engaged in self-study. Others seemed panicked at the prospect of having to do institutional self-study; however, they believed they would be unable to compete for some mythical financial pot of gold if they did not. For most Ecuadorian universities, self-study meant curricular study and revision. For these universities, having curricula responsive to societal needs seemed the primary indicator of quality. For others, institutional self-study was believed to be a magical elixir that would solve all of Ecuador’s problems. External actors, such as the US Embassy, were very interested in the creation of such a system.

In the summer of 1995, CONUEP seemed in disarray as it struggled to choose an executive secretary. Its credibility seemed very low among various personnel at the 13 universities I visited. Multiple proposals to change the law governing higher education, specifically to change how rectors were elected and to impose admission requirements, languished in Congress with little support. At the end of the summer of 1995, there was every indication that Misión would have little impact and that the controversial proposed accreditation and evaluation system would meet the same fate as its companion proposal to change university governance.

However, during the 1995-96 academic year the executive secretary of CONUEP changed: the Sistema de Evaluación y Acreditación Universitaria (SEAU) was established in August 1995, a timeline was outlined, funds were targeted, and a well-respected former university rector was chosen to direct the development of a proposal for the evaluation and accreditation system. Planning for the institutional evaluation and accreditation system had begun. By the time I returned in late June of 1996, a model of institutional evaluation and accreditation looking very much like the US system had emerged from year-long discussions. At that time, SEAU was engaged in an iterative process with university representatives and others to receive feedback on and modify drafts of the proposed system. As of January 1998, the development process was still in progress as manuals and guidelines were still being written.

The proposed evaluation/accreditation system looks very much like the US accreditation model. The purpose of the evaluation and accreditation system as stated in Misión is not to rank universities and polytechnics, nor is it to do audits or administer sanctions. Rather the fundamental purpose is to create a system that will become a mechanism to encourage change leading to quality. Institutional self-study is believed to be the key to restoring public faith and creating a new relation between the state, society and higher education (Falconí 1996). This premise assumes that institutions recognize their weaknesses through self-study and correct them. How this will happen without any specified rewards or sanctions—other than intrinsic—and without consensus on quality is unclear. The purpose of this paper is not to critique the proposed system, however.

The proposed evaluation process consists of three stages: (1) institutional self-study, (2) evaluation by external reviewers, and (3) accreditation. To this end an independent National Council on Evaluation and Accreditation under the auspices of CONUEP is proposed. This organization will be composed of three academics chosen by CONUEP, one delegate from the Ministry of Education and Culture, one delegate from the Secretary of Planning, one delegate from the professional societies and one representative from the Camera of Production (Falconí 1996). This body will serve as the evaluation champion. It will perfect the model, promote an evaluative culture in universities, develop guidelines, consult and advise institutions, certify evaluators, read reports and make recommendations, award accreditation, publicize the results, and develop a permanent improvement program for universities (Falconí 1996). Notably, the council will include a representative from commercial sector. The National Council will be assisted by a technical commission that will be composed of five professors from various fields to actually oversee the work of evaluation. Although there was some recognition of the desirability of having the external evaluation team composed of at least some experts from outside the country, no specific plans had been made to accomplish this.

As proposed, a university will voluntarily submit to the evaluation process; and if results of the self study are deemed favorable, the institution proceeds to the external evaluation stage in which peers evaluate the institution. The National Council will then read the reports and recommendations of the first two stages and award accreditation or not. Results will be published.

During the summer of 1996, SEAU and the universities were in the process of establishing the criteria and standards to guide institutional self-study. Proposed criteria resembled closely those found in any US accreditation process. SEAU identified eight areas of analysis or components of the university: (1) mission and institutional plan, (2) teaching, (3) research, (4) relation between the university and society, (5) leadership and administration, (6) budget and finance, (7) university welfare (support services for students, faculty and staff), and (8) institutional image (Carvajal 1996, 15).

Within each area SEAU identified what it called criteria and within each criterion, indicators of performance. For example, the criteria listed under mission are (1) definition of mission and the objectives of the institution, (2) dissemination of the mission, (3) institutional integrity, (4) participation in mission definition, and (5) revision and continuity of mission and institutional plan (Carvajal 1996, 19). In total, SEAU identified 32 criteria for the eight areas or functions of the university and many more indicators for each criterion. In addition, Carvajal (1996, 19) suggested five analytic criteria to be used for interpreting results of an institution’s self study: relevance, efficiency, availability of resources, congruence of objectives and results, and effectiveness.

This system underwent revision in the summer and fall of 1996 as I and several other US consultants provided feedback on the proposed system, which, in fact, continues to undergo refinement. Progress was surprisingly rapid. Although progress has apparently slowed due to the health of the director (who has since become a senator), one thing is clear: Ecuadorian university leaders had recognized that some form of institutional evaluation and accreditation was essential in order for the quality of higher education to improve and for universities to become recognized in other Latin American countries and around the world. Activities of other Latin American countries had influenced thinking. For example, private universities in neighboring Colombia had developed their own evaluation and accreditation system, which was being watched closely by private universities in Ecuador. The symbolic, if not real, significance of some form of accreditation of universities seemingly had been recognized by all.