Accreditation, Quality and Belizean Higher Education
Eve Aird, Ph.D.
On September 7th and 8th, a few days before we celebrate the 25the anniversary of our National Independence, we will hold a National Tertiary Education Conference. The purposes of the conference include the creation of a higher education system that will be more responsive to the development needs of the nation and the development of more adequate funding arrangements As we reflect on our progress as a nation, and celebrate our national achievements, it is indeed appropriate that we engage in a national dialogue on higher education in this, our developing nation. One aspect of higher education that will be addressed at the conference is that of accreditation. As some readers will know, the National Accreditation Council Act was passed in the House of Representatives in November 2004, and the Council itself will be established shortly.
Accreditation is a process in which a higher education program of study, or an institution, is assessed against established standards and a judgment is made about the educational quality of the program or institution. While accreditation is voluntary, it is usually desired by institutions and programs since it assures parents, students, employers, government and other funding agencies that they are able to deliver a quality educational product. It nurtures public confidence in the quality of education offered at a particular institution.
Integral to the process of accreditation is the interpretation of what is meant by the quality of higher education. Quality in higher education can be thought of in several ways. For example, we might ask ourselves what should be the purpose of higher education in Belize? Is it serving a national purpose? Have we as a nation developed a National Higher Educational policy that would address the role of higher education in national development and prioritize the kinds and levels of programs needed, funding formulas attached to these, and research and development issues. As a developing nation, what value do we place on national higher education in driving development? What role does the Ministry of National Development play in the upcoming national dialogue on Belizean higher education? There needs to be a sensitive and rational interaction with the very people that the higher education system is meant to be serving so that higher education indeed responds to the needs of the nation.
Another way of thinking about quality in higher education is to question how relevant are our current higher education programs to Belize and its developmental needs. A criticism has long been made about the gross proliferation of Business Administration programs in every institution across the country. The same can soon be said of the generic Tourism Management programs that seem to be cropping up in almost every institution. Programs are replicated all over the country with little thought given to their utility within the communities they serve, or to the adequacy of available resources at their institutions. (As a matter of fact, a speaker at the recent Sixth Annual Conference of the Association of Caribbean Higher Education Administrators, addressing this same point, remarked that every institution need not have every program.) Yet, 25 years after our independence, there are still no majors in History – as a post-colonial society it is important for us as a people to understand our past so that we can appreciate where we are today, and chart our future course. We still have no majors in Linguistic, despite the tremendous linguistic diversity we have, and the continued failure of our students from kindergarten through university in Language Arts. Our ethnic and Linguistic diversity is a potential research mine that is untouched. And there is no Developmental Studies, no study of Culture and Art, no majors in Small Business Development, and no regional (Caribbean and Latin American) studies, and no Forestry Management.
This irrelevance in higher education programming is most evident in our teacher education programs. Despite their proven inadequacies, these programs have not changed over the years. Our children still demonstrate difficulty in reading, writing and mathematics (I daresay that if some of our teachers were to take the same tests that our children are required to sit, they too would do poorly!) Science fares little better. We have highly trained and qualified personnel staffing our tertiary level institutions and the Ministry of Education who are able to research these problems and propose solutions to them but we mis-deploy them as administrators and fail to create an environment that is supportive of research and development activity that is so intrinsic to a higher education culture, and in doing so continue to fail our children and the nation.
Yet a third way of thinking about quality in higher education is by assessing whether we are getting a return on our investment. This is especially important at a time when we try to come up with a national funding formula and talk about tuition and fee increases. We must ask ourselves whether the education given by an institution is worth the cost of its programs (cost per credit hour, fees, books and other expenses, and that of the student time spent in the program, time that otherwise might have been spent in gainful employment). Can graduates of the program actually function effectively in their professional environment? I recall the former University College of Belize (UCB), engaged in what was called a Curriculum Review and Development exercise (an institutional self-study), asking this very question of a former governor of the Central Bank of Belize; his answer was a resounding "no!" Given the results on the various examinations sat annually by our primary and secondary school students, and given the observations that members of the private sector made recently about the various inabilities of graduates of our institutions at the town meetings on tertiary education, would our answers today be any different?
At this time, as we begin the work of planning for the development of a relevant higher education system, it is important that we ask ourselves these hard questions. Are we satisfied with what we have achieved? As we establish our National Accreditation Council whose function it will be to ensure a quality higher education program for Belizean students, it is important that we first think about the kind of higher education programs that Belize needs at this stage of our development. It is important for us to take the opportunity afforded us by the upcoming National Tertiary Education Conference to plan rationally and strategically the development of that system. It is appropriate that we take this time to rationalize the development and delivery of our program offerings across the sector, so that we address the inadequacies in the system within the framework of accreditation. This is a national responsibility – it is not only the task of the higher educational community, but that of all of the public and private sector, parents, students, employers – everyone. We all have a stake in Belizean higher education.
Eve Aird, Ph.D.