Tony Gurr

Çay ve Simit – and some more “accreditation”!

In Guest BLOGGERS, Our Universities, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 09/06/2011 at 11:44 pm

In our last post I attempted to sketch out a framework for a “Dummies Guide” for accreditationthe good news is the lawyers at Wiley & sons have not been able to catch up with me!

The aim of that post was really to give everyone (who has not been formally involved in the “accreditation business”) a “taste” of what the process involves – or present the “big picture” of what a school, college or university has to “do” to get accredited by an international accreditation body.

However, to really bring the whole issue of accreditation “alive” I decided to interview Engin Ayvaz, Director of Yaşar University’s School of Foreign Languages (YU-SoFL) – in Izmir.

Engin and the YU-SoFL Accreditation Steering Committee are just “coming up for air” after a marathon of preparing for their upcoming accreditation site visit.

He was certainly in need of some Çay ve Simit

 

Engin Hocam, you have almost completed your first real push towards full accreditation of your programme at YU-SoFL. How does it feel to know you are almost finished?

Relief – first of all! Actually, I am really glad that we stayed with the programme and met all our deadlines – you never really know how important the timelines are when you start something like this.

I also have to admit that I feel quite “tired” – not just because of the accreditation process but more because of the wider “overhaul of the program” over this period. Seriously, there were times that I could not keep track of the changes and improvements – let alone “manage” them.

Of course, I’m also anxious to see the “results” of this project and how it is all going to end up – even though I know that it “never really ends”! That having been said, there is also a great “sense accomplishment”.

Everybody knows how much scrutiny we are under as “prep schools”. Faculties are always complaining about the level of students’ English and how poor their linguistic skills are. A lot of this criticism “sticks” because usually prep classes are at the bottom of the pile in the “academic caste system”. Despite how much we do (and achieve), our programmes are seen (often falsely) as the least successful “unit” of the wider university – in management terms. This is a common problem in Turkey – not a specific problem unique to Yaşar University.

The “accreditation route“ is also a response to these perceptions; that is, to demonstrate that our systems and operations are in compliance with international quality standards.

 

I have to ask – has it really been worth it? How has going through the process benefitted Yaşar University?

It was definitely worth itwhether we become accredited or not! 

The process itself was very rewarding in itself. It was a great opportunity to reflect on our own practices and operations in a systematic and scientific way. All our policies, procedures and processes have been improved – if not reviewed as a whole.  I can see the “bigger picture” even better now.

The drive for this process is to adhere to internationally recognized quality standards in language teaching and there is no better way to do this than with the CEA.

 

You mention CEA (the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation) – why did you select this accreditation body?

That decision came after many long discussions and gatherings. There were two main reasons why we chose CEA over say other bodies or agencies – in other words, American over European.

At first, we looked at the accredited institutions of both American and European bodies; after all, being accredited means joining a “league of schools”. We found out that the programs that are accredited by CEA are similar to our program at Yaşar – namely IEP’s serving as a foundation year at English medium universities.

I haven’t heard of many prep or foundation programs in universities across Continental Europe. There are some universities in the UK offering pre-sessional courses, but they are not as common as they are in US. We thought as a school we would better fit in the CEA setting.

The second reason is we believed that the CEA provides a more “comprehensive” look at the institution as a whole rather than focusing on selected features of a given program. We wanted to see the whole picture across the school and how the elements of this living organism co-exist (if they ever do). 

 

So, what did the “CEA route” entail for you all at Yaşar?

First of all – it is a long, demanding process. It takes 2 to 3 years depending on the size and structure of your program. The first and most common mistake is that people generally underestimate the processby looking at the “standards”, you tend to think 2 years is just too long. But it is not! 

 

 

After initial contacts and some e-mail exchanges with CEA, we submitted our official statement of interest. The application involves basic information about the program and how it operates. CEA checks if you are eligible to pursue the accreditation and “confirms” or “rejects” the application.

After the application is approved the Self-Study Coordinator, the person who will orchestrate the whole process, attends the 3-day-long accreditation workshop in the US which is held a couple of times every year.

Typically the Self-Study Coordinator is chosen from the management team; however, this is not recommended by CEA itself. Only now do I understand the logic of this! It is such a demanding role – on top of day-to-day management of a program. 

After about 3 months (after the workshop) the Self-Study Coordinator submits the Self-Study Plan, which is the “road map” for the long Self-Study Report process.

The Self-Study Report (in short, a reflection of all your operations) has to be finished within 18 months. There are 52 standards you have to meet. What you do, in summary, is “narrate” how you meet each standard and provide “evidence” for your claims.

Then, comes the self evaluation and recommendations and timelines for changes if any.

After the Self-Study Report is sent to CEA, you start to wait for the site-visit with a “review team” which generally takes place 3 to 4 months after the submission. The review team is generally made up of 3 people – by and large fellow teachers from other accredited institutions.

Following the two and a half day visit, the team prepares a report and sends it to the Commission for a decision.

The commission can “grant” 1, 5 or 10 year accreditation or, god forbid, “deny” it.

 

What have some of the benefits of the whole process been – how has it improved the way Yaşar “does business”?

Everybody says the school they run is the “best”. The issue is who or what decides which school is good or bad? What criteria do schools use to evidence that they are the best? The process helps back up such claims – or, at least, helps schools see their weaknesses and start fixing them.

There are more than 150 universities now in Turkey, with at least 100 of them housing an IEP at which more than 100.000 students study annually. With that many programs and students involved, it is inevitable that the question of quality in EFL education will arise and what better way do you know than international accreditation and recognition.

I think the conventional, old school system in which you spend a good 4 years of your life at the same place is way behind us now. I believe the future of tertiary education is all about student (and staff) mobility in which transferable knowledge and recognized competencies are at the heart of what we do. Educational institutions’ response to phenomenon has to be international accreditation and peer-review.

The whole accreditation cycle has also been a personal challenge and a (possible) accomplishment on my side. I had a “mission” in this school and the next step was to make the school a “self-managing organisation” where systems and values run the school, not me or some other director. That might sound a bit grand – maybe I’m trying to dress up my own wish for an “easier life”. But, the truth is I work less and do more now with all those policies and procedures in place.

That having been said working with other departments within university was one of the biggest challenges we faced. Accreditation is not always as important a priority for some of them – and I can understand this. There are a lot of instances in which you have to cooperate and coordinate with administrative offices like student affairs, accounting, media relations, etc. Generally, they  had other things to worry about – but in the end, better communication between units or departments is positive move.

Of course, all of this has not been “cheap” – there are costs to going through a process like this and accreditation is a costly process. That having been said taking the CEA route is pretty cost-effective – if we compare them to other bodies and agencies.

 

What about YÖK? What role did they play in the wider process – how did they support you?

When Teresa O’Donnell, executive director of CEA, was in İzmir visiting us, I spent most of my time trying to explain the role and weight of YÖK in tertiary education here. YÖK is the ultimate policy-making, governing and auditing entity in the country and no operation can be in conflict with their policies. It is not easy for a person who is coming from a rather decentralized and autonomous higher education system to fully understand this.

For instance, there is a standard regarding student recruitment, which does not make any sense to us as Turkish administrators since students come from a “central pool” created through a “central examination”. We do not directly recruit students – save for the so-called “Özel Yetenek Sınavı”.

Therefore we just skipped that standard!

In fact, the first question I asked was that what we do when we come across a standard in conflict with local regulations or laws. CEA agreed that local laws should prevail when/if there is a conflict but it is has to be explained and/or justified.

Even though that advice seemed like a “solution”, it created a problem; all relevant laws, bylaws, regulations, resolutions etc are in Turkish and no English version is available on the YÖK webpage or anywhere else. Considering the volume of YÖK regulations involved, it is impossible to translate everything. CEA had to trust our own interpretations of YÖK policies and practices.

 

Most people will know that accreditation is a voluntary method of quality assurance or institutional effectiveness (your outline of the CEA process shows this) – but what does it mean for students and teachers, in practice?

There have been a lot of changes in almost everything we do – but the major ones are in performance management, data and record keeping and most importantly the review of policies.

An accreditation cycle requires review of all policies and procedures from curriculum to document retention by all those involved in these systems and processes. This is good evidence that accreditation values “on-going or continuous development” rather than just being a “final destination” – going for accreditation is really the “starting point”!

Accreditation bodies advocate for “minimum quality standards” – but this does not mean that institutions cannot go that extra mile and take things further.

The students are at the epicenter of all these efforts and the standards we worked towards shows how everything affects them. The lives of students at YU-SoFL have been affected dramatically – from services to appeal procedures.

As a natural consequence of the accreditation process, the curriculum and the assessment procedures have been overhauled which directly affects students’ lives in the classroom. I can confidently say that the traditional “arch-enemies” are now functioning better and I hear less “grinding”.

For instance, the FLAT (Yaşar’s proficiency exam) had to be re-structured in order to better reflect learner outcomes – and this has been a huge improvement!

Another important issue is that we are now communicating far better with our students – this increases student involvement and awareness-raising; from the student handbook to twitter – we are using almost every channel to tune into where our students are coming from.

Further, students are now also “active participants” in the the decision-making processes that affect their lives – through better surveys, focus groups and even the appeals process. In fact, there are two students in the Annual Review Committee which oversees and evaluates all policies and procedures with regards to the program! A huge step forward for us…

Thanks to the new appraisal policy, many faculty are taking the initiative to organize extra-curricular activities for the benefit of students and, on many occasions, I have started to see more student enthusiasm – even when staying late at night.

Who is going to say that is not a “great outcome”?

OK – I am not saying that the accreditation created all theses great things for us. On the contrary – it was “us” – SoFL Faculty and students working real hard to accomplish such things. The accreditation just helped us jog our memory and create a “better good road map” for improvement and recognition.

As far as the teachers are concerned (and, to my amazement) the new comprehensive performance management system was really popular – staff really liked it. I think this is because they now feel like their hard work does not go unnoticed and they have a chance to be recognized and appreciated.

To be honest, initially I thought they would see this as a “burden” but it appears they like it more than I do!

Actually, you know what – with very few exceptions, everybody in the school took the initiative and did something along the process and they are still working on the things they started.

Again, I’ll probably be criticised for being too wordy – but the phrase that comes to mind is “liberal democracy” when people ask us to describe the present “feel” in the school – a kind of educational “laissez faire, laissez passer”.

And you know what; I am enjoying the “creativity” and “quality” that this creates for us!

 

The term accreditation is today closely linked to the notion of a “culture of quality” – how has it changed the culture of Yaşar?

First of all, it was amazing to see the commitment of the staff during the process. When we first announced we were going for accreditation, there were a lot of “raised eyebrows” and “mumbles” in the initial meeting.

However, over the course of time I witnessed how enthusiastic, motivated and engaged people were.

This is probably because they saw the positive changes that were affecting their lives over the course of time.  The changes introduced provided a more fair, transparent and sustainable workplace for the faculty.

In fact, much of the work done put more pressure on “the management team” and its operations. Accountability became one of the key themes for school management. For example, before the “internal appointments policy” was implemented, what I did was just to call the person I deem “suitable” for the post and appoint him/her. What we do now is to announce the post, collect applications and letters of interest, interview candidates and explain to them why they are not chosen.

This policy alone, for instance, convinced faculty that there is a chance for everyone within the school. The present Prep Class Coordinator was appointed according to these procedures and everyone seems happy so far.

 

Accreditation is not without its critics in Turkey. There are some that claim that it is all a big exercise in creating “unnecessary documentation” and that the process just results in more work for teachers – without any real benefits for students. Others say institutions just do it as a means of getting a certificate they can put “up on a wall”. How would you address these criticisms?

There were standards which we were compliant with, but just needed to document, as you put it. Nonetheless, there were many standards we were not compliant with and these required a great deal of work – and a lot of time. Accreditation bodies are not really interested in promises and run the site visits to see systems operating (not just look at paper). Putting in policies that we did not have and making them work was the most challenging task.

The CEA standards are not as “strict” as we originally thought; in fact, they are flexible in many ways.

Most accreditation bodies are aware of the different contexts and dynamics of different organizations and they do not try to create “uniform schools” all around the world.

The question they often focus on is simple and straightforward – “Are you a good school in your own setting?”

The criticisms of accreditation generally come from those who feel they are “too good” to be accredited, as I say. Personally, I do not see any harm or downsides to being an accredited institution. For those who doubt the process, I would simply say – take a look at CEA’s 52 standards, for example, and tell me exactly which of the standards you “object” to.

I, for one, would put my money on the standards developed by the professionals.

 

OK – wrapping up. If you were to give some advice to other universities considering accreditation, what would that be? How can they perhaps get ready to embark on the journey?

I would strongly discourage anyone who is thinking about it on a “one-man-show” basis“champions” willing to run the process all alone and prepare the report by himself/herself. A bad idea!

The starting point has to be a carefully-chosen and well-structured steering committee. The steering committee at Yaşar was made up of five team members (see below, from left to right: Nisha Agha, Ian Collins, Banu Özkaya, Özge Deliorman, Berrin Alpınar)  – all with different skills and strengths and they have done a great job so far (thank you, guys)!

There should also be a set of well-organized sub-committees that reports to the steering committee – on an on-going basis. This serves two purposes; first, everyone in the school feels involved and internalizes the process and second – things go faster.

Another note is that the importance of follow-up meetings and communication should not be ignored. The faculty should be informed of changes on regular basis – through both formal or informal meetings. This ensures they do not feel alienated or excluded from the process.

The same is true for other stakeholders. Development with regards the accreditation process and progress should be communicated to all those parties that support or play a role in that the organisation does – via multiple communication channels.

 

One last question. If you could go back and do the whole thing again, what (if anything) would you do differently? 

I think I can probably answer that question better in a few months – after March 2012. What I will say, however, is that I wish I had known about CEA when I first started at Yaşar in 2005.

 

Engin – thanks a million! We look forward to an update (and some good news) in 2012!

More… Çay veya Simit? A good, long summer break, perhaps!

 

As promised, there will be a “Part Three” to this series on accreditation – as a bit of “prep” for that, consider the following from Winder:

 

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