Continuous Improvement

Trust, but Verify the Words: The Importance of Site Visits as Part of an External Academic Accreditation

Some accreditation agencies have as their customary practice the conduct of site visits, while others only do so when they have questions and/or to seek clarification about a certain matter. As someone who has experience with both practices as well as from the viewpoint of being an academic accreditor and having been accredited, the former practice serves all involved parties best.
Written by Nita Temmerman

Higher education providers should be continuously assuring and enhancing the quality of their learning, teaching, scholarship and research. Higher education accreditation is a form of quality assurance process usually undertaken by an external agency to determine if appropriate standards in the delivery of these areas have been met. Some accreditation agencies make site visits, some do not, and some do if they consider the documentation received from the higher education provider to be inadequate in some way.

Higher Education Providers’ Response to Academic Accreditation

Most universities as providers of higher education have a division/unit with a whole team of people devoted to keeping abreast of accreditation requirements. They are expert in the preparation of documentation required for accreditation/reaccreditation. Smaller private higher education providers tend to employ consultants who are expert in accreditation to support them in the accreditation/reaccreditation process.

In both circumstances, the written documentation typically reflects knowledge on the part of the provider about how to ‘best’ present their case to the relevant accrediting authority. The chief motive is demonstrating to the external accrediting authority that the provider is compliant with the expected criteria. At the same time, the provider normally acknowledges there are some areas that require further development. As a consequence, communication is included about how the organization is working through a number of initiatives and developments to address and so bring about further improvement in academic standards and overall quality of provision.

The provider wants to paint a picture of solid and comprehensive evidence and commitment to academic quality and, at the same time, dedication to continuous quality improvement. It’s not cheating. It is perhaps at worst maybe exaggerating the excellence of how well the organization does deliver on learning, teaching, scholarship and research.

The Benefits of a Site Visit

An on-site visit allows an accreditation review team to verify the written data provided to them by the higher education provider. Just as importantly for the provider, it also offers an opportunity for the review team to evaluate those features that can’t really be effectively illustrated in written form.

The site visit usually involves discussions with key personnel within the organization, including academic and administrative staff, management, students, recent graduates and employers. These meetings can reveal so much more than the documentation alone can. They can help affirm claims made in the documentation, assist in clarifying inconsistent information or providing missing information.

Throughout the course of various discussions with organizational personnel, not only do things become clearer for the review team, the organization, through questions posed by the review team, learns much about its practices, both strengths and areas for improvement. There is a chance to seek clarification from the review team about issues and to start to reflect on how to correct or transform ways of doing things that can’t be fully replicated when working cold from a review report that includes discussion about areas for improvement. In fact, it is human nature to (at least initially) react unenthusiastically and defensively to a report that includes comments about what you’re not doing well. The site visit can act as an educative process for all involved.

An on-site visit allows an accreditation review team to verify the written data provided to them by the higher education provider. Just as importantly for the provider, it also offers an opportunity for the review team to evaluate those features that can’t really be effectively illustrated in written form.

An on-site visit means the organization also has the opportunity to make available materials such as examples of policies, procedures, guidelines, prospectuses, full subject details, a variety of samples of student work, and learning resources. While these can all be referenced in the documentation with web links provided, there is less likelihood of them being thoroughly examined than when they are actually placed in front of a review team. The on-site visit can also include an opportunity to tour the physical facilities and see firsthand classrooms, the library, laboratories and so forth.

A final stage of the site visit is often a concluding meeting with the higher education provider’s CEO and his/her senior team. The review team briefly and objectively provides their overall impressions and verbally outlines preliminary findings. It forecasts to the provider areas that may require further development. It should help lessen any ambiguity when the provider receives the full written report from the review team that will include both recommendations for changes to further improve and commendations about areas of good performance. Some review teams during this final stage also offer suggestions to the provider about alternate effective practices they may wish to consider, based on their knowledge of what is good practice in other organizations.

As stated at the outset, higher education is about learning, teaching, scholarship and research. It is in everyone’s interests that higher education providers engage with these areas to the highest possible standards. I believe that accreditation exercises I have been part of that have included site visits more accurately (and honestly) confirm compliance with expected accreditation principles than those that rely solely on written documentation. Including a site visit as part of the accreditation process supports continuous academic quality improvement.


accreditation on-site visits quality assurance

About the author

Nita Temmerman
International Higher Education Consultant

Nita Temmerman (PhD; MEd (Hons); BEd; BMus; ATCL; MACE) has held senior University positions in Australia including Pro Vice Chancellor Academic Quality, Pro Vice Chancellor International Partnerships and Executive Dean. She is an independent higher education consultant and invited professor to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, SE Asia and the Middle East and Academic Board Chair for 3 private higher education institutions. Nita is also an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic & Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ), and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations & Customized Knowledge Solutions (Dubai). Projects draw on expertise in organisational strategic planning, quality assurance, academic accreditation and reaccreditation, higher education policy development and review, teacher education and curriculum design and evaluation. Nita has published 14 books, over 70 scholarly papers, conducted numerous presentations in SE Asia, Middle East, Pacific, UK and USA and remains an active contributor to several education publications.

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