Since there are no globally-accepted definitions of terms, this section aims to clarify the terminology that is used in quality-assurance regulation matters in Canada, as it may differ from other interpretations and applications.
Accountability is the regulatory scheme whereby governments place obligations on institutions, and for which those institutions must demonstrate compliance. Accountability may be directed to institutional performance, but it often refers to the obligation to report, explain, justify, and answer questions, about how resources have been used, and to what effect.
Most provinces and territories have strong systems of accountability regimes that are able to influence postsecondary institutional activities—particularly since they are the primary funders of postsecondary education (either directly, or through indirect subsidizations), and are held responsible to the public in demonstrating value for dollar investment and identifying objective measures of educational achievement (e.g., key performance indicators, such as graduation rates).
Accountability is a regulatory scheme that focuses on institutional outputs, rather than academic quality.
Quality assurance refers to a regulation model that is intended to enhance institutional/programmatic improvement through external scrutiny. The purpose is to ensure that institutions/programs are providing students with agreed-upon curricula, and to provide information on the academic rigour of education. Quality assurance is about evaluating the institutions and the programs, not the performance of the students.
Quality assurance is the commonly used term that broadly refers to the mechanisms and processes by which postsecondary education is evaluated. There are two primary models:
- Quality assessments use qualitative and quantitative approaches to examine standards or expectations, and are generally aimed at identifying and evaluating the effects of teaching and learning at the program level. They typically include peer review evaluations.
- Quality audits are peer review evaluations of policies and procedures.
Both assessments and audits are used within the quality-assurance systems in Canada, and different agencies use one or both models.
In Canada, accreditation refers exclusively to the evaluation of professional education programs by professional bodies, such as nursing or engineering. Accreditation agencies perform external quality reviews in a fashion similar to quality-assurance agencies, but some professional accreditation associations focus on student-level achievements. Many accreditation bodies have international affiliations.
While these bodies play important roles for maintaining professional standards, the programs are still required to meet provincial or territorial standards, and undergo provincial or territorial quality-assurance processes.
External quality-assurance review processes
External quality assurance broadly refers to external oversight of institutional or programmatic quality—commonly through an agency, council, or board, where there is a quality framework (i.e., standards, benchmarks, or guidelines) to which institutions/programs must demonstrate alignment. An external quality-assurance review typically requires a self-evaluation of alignment/achievement of the standards (e.g., program content, capacity to deliver, alignment with qualifications frameworks), to be conducted by the institution/program, and followed by a desk review and site visit that is conducted by a panel of external experts who provide an evaluation report and follow-up actions. The findings of external reviews are reported to the quality-assurance agency/council/board, government institution, or professional organization.
Internal quality-assurance review processes
Internal review processes are present in all colleges and universities in Canada, and are an expectation of all external quality-assurance bodies. For colleges and institutes that report directly to government, internal review processes may be necessary in order to be eligible for direct (e.g., grants) or indirect (e.g., government-based student-loan revenues) public funding. Expectations of internal quality-assurance processes typically include a cyclical review process, where programs are reviewed every 5 to 7 years, and the demonstration that programs align with qualifications frameworks. In order to ensure professional relevance, public colleges and institutes may also be expected to involve program advisory committees that are made up of industry representatives.
Program accreditation reviews are conducted by professional regulatory bodies and associations in Canada. An external quality-assurance review typically requires a self-evaluation of the achievement of the standards (e.g., primary program content, delivery), which is conducted by the institution/program and followed by a desk review and a site visit that is conducted by a panel of external experts who provide an evaluation report and follow-up actions. The results of the review may confer the status of “aligned” or “recognized” professional program, and provide confirmation of the alignment with professional entry-to-practice requirements related to education. In turn, a professional designation or certification may be conferred on the student upon graduation.
Accreditation agencies in Canada are frequently aligned with their international counterparts, who similarly aim to support academic credential recognition of professional programs, and likewise aim to support international mobility of certified professionals in those occupations.
Private career colleges with a registration or licence from a provincial government must complete a compliance review, rather than a quality review. These reviews do not examine curriculum or programmatic activities for academic quality, but issues of financial stability, student protection, and health and safety.
Comprehensive review of this information: March 2022