SFU pursues American accreditation

With no Canadian accreditation body, universities look south of the border for stamp of approval


Simon Fraser University has applied for accreditation from the U.S. quality assurance board Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Being the first large research university in Canada to look south of the border for accreditation, the university’s move highlights the fact that Canada lacks any national mechanism for assuring quality of post-secondary institutions.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) academic planning and budgeting director Glynn Nicholls, who is also accreditation project manager, explained that SFU’s need for accreditation is related to its joining the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The university became the first non-U.S. school to be a member of the 100-year-old sports organization when it was accepted as a member in July 2009. SFU’s varsity teams will compete in the Great Northern Athletic Conference, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho.

Yet, member schools of the NCAA must be accredited and Canada offers no national quality assurance process that is comparable to that of the States. Here colleges and universities are approved by provincial governments, which generally do not assess institutions as rigorously as quality assessment bodies like the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NCCU). Since education falls under the provincial government’s jurisdiction, there is no national mechanism to assess institutions, leaving room for much inconsistency across provincial borders. Canada is the only developed country in the world that lacks a national accreditation system for post-secondary schools.

In the absence of an official quality assurance mechanism in Canada, membership in the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada (AUCC)—a national lobby group representing over 90 universities—has served as de facto accreditation. This had had negative ramifications for some students. In the past decade, provincial governments, particularly in B.C. and Alberta, have given some colleges the right to grant bachelor degrees. However, just because the government in one province approves the right of an institution to grant a degree doesn’t mean that degree will be recognized by universities outside of that province, which can be a problem for students pursuing graduate or professional degrees outside their home province.

Many registrars require that bachelor degrees come from institutions that have membership in the AUCC, but not all degree-granting institutions qualify for membership with its emphasis on peer-reviewed research. This puts these colleges in an odd position: their provincial governments say that they are qualified to grant a bachelor’s degree; the national lobbying group for universities says that they are not. There’s no referee to break the impasse.

While this isn’t an issue for SFU, which is a member of the AUCC, Nicholls says it is “unfortunate” that there isn’t any national accreditation in Canada. “If there was a similar process in place, we would be supportive.”

SFU’s academic departments are regularly assessed, according to Nicholls, and the university always performs well in academic assessments. “But there has been a gap when it comes to looking at us at an institutional level,” he says. The NCCU accreditation process will probe SFU’s academics but also its administrative procedures by examining five key standards: SFU’s vision, whether it has the resources and capacity to pursue that vision, its planning processes, how it assesses success, and how it adapts to change.

The NCCU approved SFU’s application in January 2009, which is the first step of accreditation. The process will take another five to seven years before completion.

Over the next year, SFU will complete a detailed self-study then a team of academic peers from American universities will visit the campus. “We feel that this is going to be an enormous benefit to us,” says Nicholls. “We can share best practices with high profile American universities.” U.S. accreditation has other advantages as well, according to VP-academic and accreditation sponsor, Jon Driver. “As we did our homework, it became clear that accreditation could also lead to numerous academic and other non-athletic benefits.”

Accreditation will strengthen SFU’s efforts to recruit international students. “International students are seeking assurance that SFU has accreditation. This will put us on the standing with American universities that they may be considering,” says Nicholls.

With a number of private educational institutions having failed in recent years, accreditation is particularly valuable to universities hoping to distinguish themselves from Canada’s barely regulated private career college sector. For example, when Lansbridge University in Vancouver closed suddenly in 2007, hundreds of international students were left out of pocket for their tuition and with their student visa status in question. “Unfortunately, this has created negative publicity abroad,” says Nicholls.

Although SFU will be the first research university to pursue American accreditation, Athabasca University in Alberta has gained the stamp of approval and Capilano University is more than five years into the seven-year-plus process.

Jackie Snodgrass, VP education at Capilano University, which is not a member of AUCC, agrees that the lax regulation of private schools makes recruitment difficult for public institutions. “With the proliferation of private institutions and few restrictions on using the name ‘college,’ we needed a way to distinguish ourselves as an institution that has gone through a rigorous quality assurance process.”

Although this may have been the primary reason Capilano University pursued accreditation, many unexpected benefits have come of the process. “At first people thought it was busywork,” Snodgrass says. “But then it was a big aha moment for a lot of people who really benefited from the self study.” For instance, academic departments had to evaluate their outcomes in a way they hadn’t previously, which led to increased discussion about best practices in the classroom. “Students ultimately benefit from improved programs.”

Nicholls believes that accreditation will be advantageous to SFU students and alumni alike. “Alumni working in the States will get increased credibility from their degree,” he says. “The improvements will cascade through the institution.”


SFU pursues American accreditation

  1. I have to confess, I just about fell of my chair when I read that SFU was trying to submit itself to a quality control mechanism. Now that I know it’s really just to help its relationship with a sports organization it all makes sense. Oh well, at least students will now have some means of trying to seek improvement.

  2. Whats wrong with a US-based evaluation – as long as its the right kind of evaluation?

    So many of our Canadian universities REALLY want to do well on the American’s “Campus Sustainability Report Card” that the pour a lot of time and money into doing all they can to report every little bit of eco-goodness.

    Ya know, it gives ’em a lot of ‘street cred’ to do well on the Report Card, and they’re sooooo disappointed when they see how much better the Americans are doing.

    Yep! Them thar Yankees really take this campus sustainability stuff seriously!

    Check out how well YOUR Canuck campus did on the American Campus Sustainability Report Card: http://www.greenreportcard.org/map

    Now, if Canadian campuses really suck up to our American cousins on THEIR list of criteria – we do well!

  3. I write as Director of Accreditation for CIPS, the Canadian Information Processing Society http://www.cips.ca. Your article “SFU pursues American Accreditation” is misleading in a number of respects. For many years CIPS has offered peer review based accreditation of Canadian college and university programmes in Computer Science, Software Engineering, Information Technology and Management Information Systems. Thus, your claim that “Canada lacks any national mechanism for assuring quality of post-secondary institutions” is just not true. Neither is your suggestion that “Canada is the only developed country in the world that lacks a national accreditation system for post-secondary schools.” Indeed, in Canada most professions, including law, medicine, engineering as well as Computing, provide Canadian based accreditation of post secondary institutions that prepare students to enter their respective professions.
    The CIPS accreditation process assesses academic programs in the context of the entire institution offering the program under review. Many believe that an assessment of the institution in the context of the accreditation of specific programmes is a strength of the approach which CIPS uses. CIPS’ accreditation is in demand across Canada, and has been sought by post-secondary institutions beyond our borders. Through the Seoul Accord, CIPS accreditation is recognized by other national accreditation bodies around the globe.

  4. Faculties of Applied Science and Engineering across the country are also rigorously evaluated by CEAB, a national body that accredits post-secondary enigneering programs. I’m willing to bet there are numerous other national accrediting bodies for other disciplines as well.

  5. I would also add that the accounting professions in Canada all have accreditation programs at the provincial level, overseen by a national body. Each has a set of academic requirements, and post-secondary education is reviewed for qualification for credit in their respective programs.

  6. your post is misleading you douche

    but sfu rocks!

Sign in to comment.