WENR

Accreditation in Latin America and the Caribbean

Introduction

Since the 1990s, the issue of quality assurance in higher education has become a focus of governments across Latin America and the Caribbean, and numerous accreditation organizations have emerged as a result. Large-scale expansion and diversification in the higher-education sector has prompted distinct changes in the administration of both state and privately run tertiary institutions. While this has greatly improved access to higher education for students from less affluent backgrounds, it has also created a pressing need for increased oversight of quality standards. This is especially the case in the private sector, where a majority of poorer students are today finding university and college places.

Number of Students Enrolled at Latin American Institutions of Higher Education

Year
Number of Students
1950
267,000
1980
4,930,000
2003
More than 12,000,000

Source: 2004 IESALC Study [1]

Number of Institutions of Higher Education in Latin America

Year
Number of Institutions
1950
75
1985
450
2003
Approximately 1,500

Source: 2004 IESALC Study [1]

The diversification of delivery modes and education providers through the internationalization of higher education also presents quality-assurance challenges in the region. New programs are being offered in response to local and global trends, while the providers themselves may also be local or global. International providers are today delivering courses both at physical branch campuses and via the Internet. While these developments help meet the rapidly increasing demand for higher studies brought on by the shift toward knowledge-based economies, they also present significant challenges with regard to accreditation and the recognition of qualifications.

Reduced state support for higher education and the growth of privately run universities and colleges is engendering an environment where students demand a suitable education in exchange for their tuition dollars. As a result, a culture of institutional evaluation and accreditation is beginning to emerge across the region, and new quality assurance bodies and procedures are being created, prompted mainly by government laws.

These new bodies are varied in their origins and scope. Most accreditation bodies are governmental, such as those in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. In some Central American countries, the process is overseen by prestigious public universities. In Brazil, state and federal government bodies license and regulate institutions and degree programs while two separate bodies are responsible for assessing quality standards: CAPES at the graduate level and, since 2004, the National Higher Education Accreditation System has had the broader role of coordinating and implementing assessment and regulation procedures. Some quality assurance initiatives that have emerged are highly centralized, as in Ecuador, or decentralized, as in Mexico. In Costa Rica, the National Council of Accreditation evaluates degree programs, whereas in El Salvador accreditation is conducted on an institution-wide basis.

The term accreditation can mean different things in different countries. In some countries, it is little more than an authorization to operate, whereas in others it is a recognition that an institution or program has met certain predetermined standards of educational and infrastructural quality. Furthermore, in some countries accreditation is mandatory while in others it is voluntary.

Regional accrediting bodies have also formed across Central and South America as well as organizations that accredit niche higher-education sectors. New groups that accredit medical education, engineering education, private education, agricultural education, and distance education have all begun the process of establishing their scope and influence in the regional system of quality assurance.

In this and future issues of World Education News & Reviews we will offer profiles of the quality assurance procedures in the region, both nationally and regionally. We begin with developments in Belize, Costa Rica and El Salvador: