The Nexus of Academic Integrity and Accreditation

Topics: Blog, Editorial

The International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) is an oversight organization serving higher education, globally.   The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a United States (U.S.) based, non-governmental agency with international membership.  Administration, faculty, staff and some students at schools, colleges and universities are made aware when “accreditation” is looming.  Typical “accreditation” in the U.S. may be regional (i.e. WSCUC, SACS, etc.) or discipline specific (i.e. AACSB [Business and Accounting], CCNE [Nursing], etc.).  Internationally, all accrediting bodies have covenants, standards, rules, requirements and hurdles for those educational entities wishing to obtain their appropriate membership in the overarching organization.  Once admitted, as an accredited educational entity, there are follow-up reviews and re-assessment of the qualifications of the school, college or university to maintain accredited status.

Preparation for initial accreditation and/or maintenance of status bears a heavy burden of documentation, reporting, cost and involvement by key individuals.  Accreditation status is often a determining factor for decision-making for all levels of stakeholders: students, parents, employees, employers, financial advisors, and other institutions.

To obtain the coveted status, educational institutions must provide “proof” of (in no order of priority):

  • The quality of the administration
  • The adequacy and quality of facilities (including technology, research resources and physical space)
  • Adequate student services
  • Qualified faculty, including adjuncts (and ratio of part-time to full time)
  • Appropriate record keeping as it pertains to student matriculation and program progress
  • Valid programs with appropriate course requirements
  • A reputable history
  • Financial stability and sustainability
  • Well-defined and documented planning (corresponding to a published Mission Statement)

Notice that “program progress” is in bold, indicating that this one detail of demonstrated “quality” is a measure of students’ achievements as reported on their transcripts. The data therein (referring to course grades) is, supposedly,  a reflection of what a student has learned and accomplished as they complete courses required or selected as they move through the university system toward graduation. The breakdown occurs when those course grades are partly, or entirely, the result of academic corruption.  

Academic corruption takes many forms, including, but not limited to:

  • Plagiarism
  • Disallowed collusion
  • Copying another’s work, with or without consent
  • Faculty granted favors or disparate treatment
  • Grade inflation
  • Falsified reporting of student outcomes
  • Dishonesty on entrance requirements (as falsifying TOEFL scores)
  • Flawed recruiting practices
  • Fabrication of results (as in lab experiments)
  • Procuring exam/assignment content in advance
  • Sharing content/solutions from prior coursework
  • Use of disallowed technology during an exam

How can accreditation entities pursue “quality assurance” in higher education and conclude an institution’s awareness of and attempts to curb academic corruption and lack of academic integrity?   How do the accreditation team know that the mission of the school, college or university is being met through the study of student transcripts and outcomes? Ultimate accredited status is seen as a “stamp of approval” provided by outside reviewers who have expertise in the various aspects of the investigation and the resulting conclusions.

This is a world-wide problem and these questions are addressed in work being done by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP),  International Quality Group of the US Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA/CIQG), among others.

Should higher education Quality Assurance (accrediting) Bodies require schools, colleges and universities to develop, implement and report on their handling of academic corruption and academic integrity violations?  For those institutions where such programs are in place, could there be standards established through their experiences and successes?

Without assurance of actual accomplishment and learning, a student transcript can be viewed simply as a scorecard that certain time was spent jumping hurdles.  Some programs have “outcomes assessment” which can provide some meaning to the data on a transcript. (For example, success on the CPA exam is a good indicator that an accounting student did acquire the knowledge within their college career.  This can also be true for the study of law.) However, not all “successful hurdles” in any program is demonstrated by outcomes assessment.

Every educational institution  has dedicated “learners” and “hurdlers.”  The “learners” benefit from the respect they garner through their educational accomplishments.  That respect is tarnished by the cloud of academic corruption. On behalf of the dedicated “learners,” a system pursuing a culture of academic integrity on campus provides meaning to the data showing the quality of the work as they move through their academic career and ultimate graduation.  Those learners are only one of the many stakeholders to benefit from Quality Assurance.

About the Author
Carol Coman, Associate Professor Emeritus, has worked on issues of Academic Integrity for most of her 30-year, full time teaching career. She taught in the School of Management at California Lutheran University (CLU), serving as their Director of Assessment for 15 of those years. The courses she taught were primarily accounting and finance at sophomore through graduate levels. Her focus on the quality of student work was supported by her close association with the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) where she currently, in retirement, serves the Board as Treasurer. Carol has been heavily involved in four successful accreditation “visits” (during her tenure) at CLU. She was recruited by Western Association of Schools and Colleges – Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC, formerly WASC) and has served on accreditation teams, reviewing other educational institutions as part of a team.
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