Accreditation and the Cultural Gap

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Wednesday, September 1, 2021
By Howard Davies
Illustration by iStock/timsa
Schools in certain parts of the world—particularly those in Asia—face challenges in achieving accreditation. But these roadblocks can be overcome.

In recent years, AACSB has seen significant international growth, which has been a tremendous boost to the rich diversity of its membership. However, as its international member schools undertake the accreditation process, many experience misunderstandings that can be traced to cultural differences between countries. That’s because the process of accreditation is often geared toward the norms of Westernized nations.

One of the biggest challenges is linguistic. English is the predominant second language of the educated elite in places like Europe, India, and Mexico, but it is not commonly used in many nations, including some in Asia. While it is a myth that schools must teach in English to be accredited by AACSB, schools that do not have English-speaking staff and faculty often find it more difficult to handle accreditation documentation and communicate with members of their peer review teams.

Accreditors can legitimately expect schools to function in English if their missions are to succeed on the global business stage. But many Asian schools, especially those in China, are located in provinces that have populations larger than two or three European countries combined, and these schools have missions that are essentially national or regional. If a school is the premier institution serving 50 million people in their own language, should it be excluded from accreditation because it lacks English capability?

The language gap is just one of many challenges I have witnessed during my 30 years of working with schools in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, and Pakistan. I believe that the accreditation process could become much smoother for schools in these countries if both accreditors and university administrators developed a deeper understanding of the cultural and linguistic divides. To that end, I would like to share the observations I have made during my years of working with schools across Asia.

Insights for Accreditors

Members of peer review teams making accreditation visits to schools in East Asia, particularly those in China, should understand the four traits that characterize many of these institutions:

High power distance. In societies with high power distance, junior administrators are expected to follow the detailed orders of their seniors; otherwise, they can be considered disloyal. However, because many younger administrators have more facility with the English language, juniors often are tasked with doing most of the accreditation work. They also are expected to take the lead during peer review visits to relieve the pressure on their superiors. While they are largely capable, they sometimes find it difficult to correct any misconceptions their seniors might have.

High context. In high-context societies, the information that is said or written down is less important than the context of the meeting and the relative social and power status of the participants. Conversely, in low-context societies such as Europe and the U.S., the most important element of a meeting is its written or verbal substance. In business settings, this disconnect can lead to misunderstandings, because company leaders do not always adhere to terms of a contract if circumstances change. Similarly, in high-context academic settings, administrators might think that they don’t need to meet all accreditation standards if those standards don’t suit the situations of their schools.

Confucian thinking includes the notion that people can know the perfect way to behave. Administrators can be uncomfortable with the language of continuous improvement, which implies that nothing can ever be perfect.

Confucian thinking. Harmony is a key object of Confucian thinking, but harmony does not equate to a degree of equality among participants, as it might in Western societies. Instead, harmony occurs when all participants know their roles and behave as their places in the hierarchy dictate. For thousands of years, education has been a key determinant of a person’s worth, and therefore academic attainments are imbued with far more practical and moral value in Asia than they are in the West. Knowledge is considered more important than skill. Among other things, this means that students might refrain from questioning their professors in class, because this can be seen as impolite.

Confucian thinking also includes the notion that people can know the correct, even perfect, way to behave and organize. Hence, administrators can be uncomfortable with the language of continuous improvement, which implies that nothing can ever be perfect.

High governmental involvement. Across Asia, governments have a tremendous influence on what schools teach, sometimes mandating learning goals and certain types of program content. As an example, schools in China sometimes have as many as 50 programs, a number that seems large by Western standards. Review teams can interpret that to mean inefficient program proliferation and poor portfolio management, and they have sometimes suggested schools reduce the number of programs they offer. However, in many cases, the large number arises from the process by which the authorities allocate resources to schools and indicates that the schools have been successful in persuading authorities that they should be entrusted with more programs. Schools in that position find it very strange that a symbol of success in their national context should be seen as a problem by an accrediting body.

A nation’s history also influences the way institutions are run. For instance, in China, many professors over the age of 50 do not have PhDs, because when they earned their master’s degrees, doctoral programs were still small in scope after the sector had been closed for a decade. Accreditors working with these schools need to understand the local parameters.

Advice for Administrators

Senior administrators in Asia who want to undergo the accreditation process should know exactly what the process is and is not designed to do. Misunderstandings can lead to ill feeling and misdirected efforts, but these can be avoided if administrators follow these 10 tips:

Realize that the standards are guidelines. They are not attempts to make you clones of Western schools. They are debated and agreed-upon definitions of what good-quality schools look like. Standards are always written with a degree of flexibility in mind.

But also realize that you must achieve each standard in some way. I cannot count the number of times that administrators have asked me, “Do we really have to meet that standard?” Yes, you do.

Work with your local system as far as possible. If your government has a quality assurance system of its own, try to integrate your accreditation process with the work you do for local authorities. If your government mandates certain content or learning goals, integrate them into the learning goals you describe for accreditation. In fact, AACSB standards open the door for accepting national assurance of learning systems in certain circumstances. (See page 32 of the Interpretive Guidance for AACSB Business Accreditation.) You do not need to create a separate—and probably inauthentic—world for the accreditors!

Understand that accreditation is about improvement. It is not about demonstrating perfection. An assurance of learning system is not very effective if it shows that a school has met every benchmark every year.

In Asia, it is common to overemphasize knowledge at the expense of skills. But students need to be competent in communication, presentation, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, and the creative process.

Make sure the senior management team leads the accreditation effort. Do not hand responsibility to the office staff. While the senior managers do not need to do the detailed work, they must understand the basics of accreditation, be able to identify the gaps the school has, and know what actions are needed to bridge those gaps. Senior faculty members like committee chairs and department heads should be well-informed about the process.

In fact, educate the whole school about accreditation. All faculty members should understand why accreditation is important, what they must do to help achieve it, and why. Someone, perhaps a mentor, should give a presentation that explains the accreditation journey to the whole school, and everyone from the dean to the faculty to the staff should be required to attend.

Hire consultants if you need them—but don’t rely on them too much. Accrediting bodies make their best efforts to guide schools on their accreditation journeys. However, if a school lacks experience, and if there are wide cultural, institutional, and linguistic gaps between the school and the accrediting body, administrators might need more assistance than they can get from peer review team volunteers. If that is your situation, consider hiring consultants. But check the advisors’ credentials and ask for references from other schools they have helped. Do not imagine they can do all the work of accreditation for you, even if they tell you they can. And realize that your school will not improve—nor will it succeed in the accreditation process—if you hire someone to do the work for you. It is better not to attempt accreditation at all than to outsource it completely.

Create a balanced curriculum. In Asia, it is common to overemphasize knowledge at the expense of skills. But students will need to be competent in communication, presentation, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, and the creative process. While your school’s balance between skills and knowledge will depend on your mission, you will need to address all these competencies if you’re going to meet the needs of your students. If you aren’t sure which abilities will be most prized by employers, ask them what they’re looking for in your graduates—and assure them that you want them to be honest, not polite, in their answers.

Choose the right person at the school to lead the accreditation effort. This should be someone who is senior enough to take issues to the top management team. Ideally, this person should come from the area and have a deep understanding of local roots—but also have had a great deal of experience living and working in an English-speaking environment. The language of accreditation documentation is not easy, even for native speakers, and people who have only used English in the classroom are unlikely to understand all the nuances of the language. If the school wastes too much time working from inadequate translations, officials risk getting sidetracked and frustrated by the process rather than extracting value.

Be cautious about relying on the information from the “gossip network” of accreditation teams in your country. Sometimes, the information they share is simply wrong, especially when they state that a school has achieved accreditation without meeting a particular standard. Other times, the news they spread focuses on a single data point and does not reveal the full context of the accrediting body’s decision. Accreditation involves professional judgment, which takes a holistic view of the school. The gossip network does not provide a full and accurate picture of a school’s peer review team visit, so be wary of applying any advice that circulates through this medium.

Developing Awareness

As more schools around the world seek accreditation, the quality of management education rises globally. That’s a desirable outcome for students, businesses, and society at large. But accrediting bodies need to be aware of the challenges that face even the best schools located outside of Western countries. And school officials need to understand what steps they can take to ensure their own success on the accreditation journey. Only then will management education begin to rise to its full potential.

Davies previously served as the first dean in the Faculty of Business at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and he has mentored schools in China, Japan, Malaysia, and Pakistan that were undergoing the accreditation process.

Howard Davies
Professor, Beijing Jiaotong University
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