The rationale for international accreditation

In recent years there has been a deliberate move by European universities to develop international Master degree programmes to attract international students to Europe, this initiative has been spurred on by the European Commission’s Erasmus Mundus programme. 

An international degree programme is one that addresses subject specific knowledge appropriate to the international student audience, and develops subject specific skills and generic skills (in particular intercultural competence) aimed at preparing students for performing (professionally, socially and emotionally) in an international and multicultural context (developed from Nilsson 2000).

An international curriculum and extra curricular activities will be recognised if it fulfils the following requirements:

·         there are modules addressing subject content in one or more of the following:

-          internationally applicable subjects (e.g. biotechnology),

-          global issues (e.g. global warming, sustainability),

-          comparative studies (comparing systems used in different world regions),

-          regional studies whose outcomes are globally applicable.

·         there are modules and extra curricular activities to improve the student’s attitudinal skills and cultural appreciation which enable:

-          the student to communicate effectively with students from different native languages.  S/he may not be taught or socialise in his/her native language (the expectation being that in an international degree programme the students will have a range of native languages, and the curriculum may also be presented by staff in their non-native language),

-          the student to develop cross-cultural skills,

-          the students to work together in international groups.

·         there is provision for second language training, though not necessarily compulsory.

For such degree programmes there is a need to follow Quality Assurance assessment and Accreditation procedures for international degree programmes (double degrees, joint degrees or programmes delivered by a single university) that will assure that the degree programmes are designed and delivered to meet the needs of international students.  Furthermore, all stakeholders need to be assured that appropriate quality standards are embedded in the programme and that the degree programme is delivered in accordance with the Bologna process.

At present accreditation of degree programmes is, in the main, administered by national Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agencies whose first priority are the perceived national requirements.  This creates problems for international double or joint degree programmes (programmes delivered by two or more institutions from different European countries) when it comes to Quality Assurance and Accreditation.  This is because an international programme will more than likely be required to undergo Quality Assurance and Accreditation in more than one country, where the standards and procedures may not be comparable.

For double degree programmes, where each higher education institution awards the graduate with its own degree certificate, it could be argued that this does not present a problem as the "degree certificate" at each higher education institution would be validated by the respective national agency.  However, this does not overcome the real problem that the students spend different proportions of their time at two or more higher education institutions, probably in different countries.  This places the responsibility on each higher education institution to prove to its own national accreditation agency the quality of the provision from the other higher education institutions contributing to the degree programme.  In addition, it raises the issue as to whether it is possible for a national accreditation agency to validate such an international double degree programme.  In reality, double degree programmes present the same problems in respect of Quality Assurance and Accreditation as do joint degree programmes, for which just one degree certificate is awarded.

In addition, in some countries there are no specific criteria for the accreditation of degree programmes in the life sciences.  This can be a disadvantage for the life sciences degree programmes as they are then often compared with other more basic science disciplines.  In this context life science degree programmes are those delivered in the disciplines relating to agriculture, food, natural resources, rural development and the environment.

ICA, the Association for European Life Science Universities, has been funded by the European Commission to develop procedures and instruments for the Quality Assurance and Accreditation of international Master degree programmes in the Life Sciences.  The particular innovative focus has been to develop a quality assurance framework of benchmarks and indicators that are appropriate to ensuring that Master degree programmes meet the expectations of international students.  In addition with the support of the EU funded project ICA has established the European Accreditation Agency for the Life Sciences (EAALS) - for agriculture, food, natural resources, rural development and the environment.