The social capital of accreditation in higher education (#change11)


[Image retrieved from http://www.businessearth.com/social-capital-understand-grow/ 25 January 2012]

Following from this week’s post “The selfish giant and the unlocking of the gates of higher education” and the discussions that followed from it; I realised that there is more to the issue of accreditation than is often on the table (whether a banquet table at one of the elite universities, or a kitchen table in a far-off place of which the World Bank and those responsible for university rankings have not heard of).

This discussion arises from discussions around the “Unlocking the gates”. How and why leading universities are opening access to their courses”, one of the readings in this week’s  MOOC.

I don’t dispute that some open courseware experiences and moocs are on the same and often higher standard than accredited courses at higher education institutions. I don’t dispute that many students (often those who already have qualifications) don’t need accreditation or yet another certificate. I also don’t dispute that online courseware as defined by Walsh et al fulfils a crucial and increasingly important in the bigger landscape of lifelong learning.

So why does accreditation (still) matter to thousands of students registering for accredited courses and programmes? What is it with accreditation and the “label” of being accredited by a leading higher education institution that makes students to beg, steal or borrow (and don’t discount bribe)  to get a place in an accredited (preferably a reputable one) and accrediting (acknowledged by employers and society) institution?

The following non-definitive list of pointers provides glimpses of what is behind the power and lure of accreditation…

  • Throughout the ages accreditation played an important role –whether in the closed and secret the mask carvers societies of Benin, or the samurai sword smiths in Japan, or the weaver guilds in Ghana or the scholarly circles of ancient Greece (Socrates, Plato and Co). The reputation of your training in your craft or scholarly foundation depended on the reputation and brand of your teachers.
  • The reputation of the craft association or scholarly institution often resulted from networks of power with either the religious, economic or political regimes of the time, or a combination of these. Those regimes had (and still have) vested interests in the craft associations or scholarly institutions and would have done (and will still do) anything possible to sustain the reputation of their protégés. [See the disturbing article by Rhoads, R.A. 2011. The U.S. research university as a global model: Some fundamental problems to consider].
  • Let us go down one level more. Students enrolling in training and/or higher education therefore need to take cognisance of the reputation of their prospective institutions. Students’ future depends on the social capital that the reputation and brand of these institutions will award on them once qualified.  No accreditation, no social capital, no future (or a different one sans the benefits of accreditation).
  • Add to this witches’ brew the current dominant liberal economic meta-narratives and the role of employers and employer organisation and the importance of the social capital inherent in accreditation becomes more visible.

All of the above contribute to motivating students (and often their loved ones) to commit huge resources for pursuing getting an accredited qualification.

In the South African context with an unofficial unemployment figure of close to 40%, accreditation is not a small deal. Many students of previously disadvantaged families enrolling for the first time in higher education carry with them the hope and future of large extended families, networks and communities. They simply cannot fail (although sadly many do). There is just too much at stake. Students (and their families) would die for a place in higher education (link).

There are most definitely more factors than the above, but for now let us consider the following question: When does accreditation not matter, why and to whom?

Accreditation does not seem to matter to

  • Students who already have sufficient social capital to progress in their personal and professional lives
  • Students who want to enrich their current set of intellectual and practical capabilities in order to increase their potential, personal brand, build networks, or use their learning as a stepping stone for something else, etc
  • Students who are not sure they want to commit to the sometimes excessive assessment regimes due to a range of factors such as personal circumstances, work-life balance, etc
  • Lifelong learners (mostly already well-established in careers and networks)

In closing: Accreditation and the social capital inherent in accrediting learning should not be underestimated. The notion of accreditation has a long history embedded in socio, economic, political and legal networks of power.

The open courseware movement is possibly an indication or glimpse of changing paradigms and changing notions regarding the social capital inherent in accreditation. But history provides ample evidence of the power (and selfishness) of giants and their castles.

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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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10 Responses to The social capital of accreditation in higher education (#change11)

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