Sunday 29 April 2012

The accreditation of qualifications

The market in qualifications is growing, and getting more open. I wonder whether modern trends will have only the expected and desired results, or some unexpected or undesired ones too.

For a long time, we have had universities, school examination boards, and professional institutes. Some of these entities are given special powers by the state, for example the exclusive right to award qualifications that are called degrees, or to confer qualifications that entitle people to represent others in court.

Now, we see a profusion of new bodies that offer qualifications, some for areas of work that did not exist a few decades ago, such as information technology, and some for long-standing trades. More interestingly, there are now some businesses that are detached from those subject-specific bodies, but that offer accreditation services. Googling on the phrase "accreditation services" will turn up several examples.

One expected and desired result of this proliferation of qualifications is that there are now plenty of focused and assessed courses available. This should increase the level of skills of the population, and indeed the general educational level of the population, more effectively than a less-focused exhortation to read books. It is also good if people seek out focused courses in in the humanities, and in the natural and social sciences considered in their own right (rather than in relation to their practical application). And plenty of courses like that are now available, some of them provided free of charge by universities. But the push to undertake such courses is not going to come from people's employment.

Another result is that there is no longer a single clear significance of accreditation. There is no single framework of standards, within which the endorsers of qualifications work. To some extent, it was ever thus. Universities and professional bodies worked separately. But when there are commercial providers of accreditation, we must ask whether they are as strict as they should be, or whether their commercial interests affect their work. Strictness requires more than consistency. One could be consistently generous in granting accreditation, but that would make accreditation valueless.

Many of the accreditors are at pains to assure us of their ethical stances and independence. But self-certification of that nature should carry no weight. Even non-profit bodies cannot be assumed to be immune to untoward influences. There may be no shareholders to seek profits, but there are still employees who seek their continued employment. That requires keeping existing customers and, just to be on the safe side, acquiring new ones.

So where there is a free market in accreditation, the mere fact that a qualification has been accredited proves little or nothing. Anyone who sought to establish the worth of a given accreditation would have to find out which body had conferred it, how that body worked, and in particular, how many qualifications that body refused to accredit. No prestige would automatically attach to qualifications that were accredited in the free market. Having said that, the process of accreditation could still be useful to those who ran qualifications, because it would give them some external comment on their work.

Is this result desirable? The choice is between the following.

1. A single framework of standards. I do not favour this option. It would be cumbersome to ensure compliance across the full range of accreditations of qualifications. Mindless bureaucrats and users of management-speak would devise forms that would be tedious and the completion of which would prove little. And the standards would probably be inappropriate to some accreditations.

2. A free market in accreditation. This is the option we have accidentally chosen, and I think it is better than option 1., although it has disadvantages, as already noted.

3. No accreditation for the great majority of qualifications. I suspect this would be just as good as option 2. It is not clear to me that either the people who take courses, or the people who offer jobs to those who may hold certain qualifications or who send their employees on courses, gain much useful information from accreditation in the free market. It must be up to individual students and employers to decide whether they wish to choose accredited qualifications, when there are non-accredited (and quite possibly cheaper) alternatives. But they should not think that non-accredited qualifications would necessarily be worth any less than accredited alternatives.

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