We begin our discussion of transparency tools with the oldest tool of this kind in higher education. Currently, accreditation is, probably, the most common form of external quality assurance in higher education. In the 1980s and 1990s, accreditation was—from our perspective of transparency—an effort to create and disseminate information on the quality of higher education. The distinguishing characteristic of accreditation is that external quality assessment leads to a summary judgment (pass/fail, or graded) that has consequences for the official status of the institution or programme. Often, accreditation is a condition for recognition of degrees and their public funding. Accreditation is the simplest and, therefore, prima facie most transparent form that quality assurance can take. However, the transparency function of quality assurance is an additional aim—its primary aim is to assure that quality standards are met.
When accreditation and other forms of external quality assurance were introduced in governance relations in Western higher education systems (that is: since the 1950s in the USA and around 1985 in Europe), their focus was on what higher education institutions were offering, measured by input indicators such as numbers and qualifications of teaching staff, size of libraries, or staff–student ratios. Study programme managers had to describe the curriculum and—in modern parlance—intended learning outcomes. Such input indicators could relatively easily be collected from existing administrative sources. However, the relevance of input indicators for making the quality of the teaching and learning experience (i.e. the teaching and learning process) more transparent, or for exposing the quality of outputs (e.g. degree completions) and outcomes (e.g. graduate employment, or continuation to advanced study) was questioned. Subsequently, various adaptations to accreditation have been introduced.
In Europe as well as in the USA, and in line with New Public Management, governments increasingly wanted to know about outputs and outcomes, stressing value for money and the wish to protect consumers’ (students’) rights to good education. Increasingly, therefore, accreditation standards began to include measures of institutional educational performance, such as drop out or time-to-degree indicators. From the mid-1980s onwards, in the USA, this movement led to coupling accreditation with student assessment (Lubinescu et al. 2001) while in Europe parallel developments ensued especially since the articulation of the European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education 2005; European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education et al. 2015). From a governmental, accountability perspective, the focus was mostly on graduation rates (or their complement: drop-out rates), and in the USA also on students’ loan default (since graduates who cannot pay back their federal loans pose a financial risk to the government).
As a recent result, after many years of debate about the conservatism and lack of pertinence of accreditation in the USA, and following incremental policy changes, in 2015 the so-called Bennet-Rubio Bill was proposed (reintroduced in 2017) to focus accreditation on outcomes-based quality reviews, with a focus on demonstrating—presumably also to the public—measures of student learning, completion and return on investment.Footnote 1
In several European countries (e.g. Sweden and the Netherlands), the focus of accreditation has recently emphasised achieved learning outcomes. The degree to which study programmes succeed in making students learn what the curriculum intends to teach is assumed to present a more transparent, more pertinent, and more locally-differentiated picture of quality. However, prospective students derive little information from the accreditation status of a study programme, as it is a binary piece of information. Additionally, some academics regard this approach as an infringement of their academic freedom rather than as aiding quality enhancement. The emphasis on achieved learning outcomes redirects accreditation more towards the diversified information needs of students, i.e. more on higher education’s public value and intends to enhance transparency. Still, the additional effort needed to assess achieved learning outcomes may produce better and more useful information, i.e. higher levels of transparency. However, this is only the case if the assessment of learning outcomes at the programme level is comparative in nature, preferably on an international scale, and the results are made public. Today’s global order in higher education is leading to huge information asymmetry challenges, which necessitate an international, comparative assessment of students’ learning outcomes based on valid and reliable learning metrics (Van Damme 2015).
The recent move in several European countries, including e.g. Germany, towards institution-level accreditation reduces transparency for clients and increases again the information asymmetry in favour of higher education providers unless other arrangements ensure publication of programme-level quality information.
Admittedly, whether students are interested in measures of achieved learning is another matter. Even if students behave as rationally as policy would have it, they would not only be interested in outcomes in the distant (uncertain) future but also in characteristics of the educational process and its context. In other words, there are good reasons for students’ interest in matters of education delivery, methods and technologies of teaching, intensity of teaching, teaching staff quality, numbers and accessibility of education facilities, availability of educational support and so on. Students (and others) will most likely also be interested in the current students’ satisfaction with such factors, allowing them to benchmark satisfaction scores across different institutions and thus to make proxy assessments of course quality. However, in accreditation systems, such information is often hard to find. Unlocking this information is one of the challenges in further redesigning accreditation mechanisms towards stronger transparency tools. Various semi-public and private information websites have been developed since about 20 years to do just this, e.g. the “Die Zeit” ranking in Germany, or Studychoice123 in the Netherlands. The UK’s recent teaching excellence framework (TEF) leads to similar information. The German and Dutch approaches rely on detailed, multi-dimensional information while the UK approach is to simplify all the information into three ratings (bronze, silver or gold provision). There is a trade-off between prima facie transparency for the masses (UK) and in-depth information for an interested audience (Germany and the Netherlands).
Meanwhile, allowing cross-institutional comparisons based on student satisfaction scores and student outcomes is also one of the objectives potentially addressed by university rankings.