What Does Accreditation Really Mean?

October 20, 2015

By Tamar Breslauer

Most administrators, faculty, and staff at universities in the United States can share stories about their accreditation process. In fact, the process of accreditation often leads institutions to develop narratives that establish who they are, what they do, and what they intend to become. The framework of an accreditation review can help institutions reaffirm, or shift, how they view themselves and how they want others to perceive them.

Yet, what does accreditation mean? Does accreditation represent quality? Does accreditation symbolize power? Does accreditation signify compliance? Why would institutions outside of the geographical area serviced by an accrediting agency voluntarily choose that agency? For those who make that choice, what do they hope to gain?

These are some of the questions considered by Gerardo Blanco-Ramirez in "US Accreditation in Mexico: Quality in Higher Education as Symbol, Performance and Translation," published in Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. Blanco-Ramirez explores the meaning of accreditation from multiple perspectives through a combination of semiotic discourse and narrative analysis of accreditation documents, reports, and manuals, and interviews with staff and administrators at a university in Mexico. He considers the performative role of U.S. accreditation by observing how accreditation links a Mexican university with U.S. universities that hold the same accreditation. Blanco-Ramirez demonstrates the ways in which the accreditation process amplifies the importance of the English language, and he uses the metaphor of translation to illustrate underlying power relations. For example, words such as "assessment" and "learning outcomes" enter the Mexican vocabulary in an untranslated form, remaining just beyond the Mexican context.

While it could be argued that U.S. accreditation has fundamentally altered higher education at the Mexican university under review, Blanco-Ramirez posits that the Mexican institution interprets accreditation in a particularly local way that represents particularly local goals. Symbolically, the Mexican university associates U.S. accreditation with international quality assurance. However, the Mexican university also considers its own accreditation as a symbol of exclusivity, distinguishing it from other universities in the region. The Mexican university uses accreditation to create a brand for itself, displaying its accreditation on flags around the school.

Blanco-Ramirez acknowledges that in one narrative, U.S. accreditation appears like a form of imperialism with the Global South turning to the Global North for legitimacy. However, he significantly complicates that reading by exploring the local meanings and symbols that accreditation signifies for this particular Mexican university.


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