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P. Gabor1, C. Ing2

1University of Calgary (CANADA)
2Lethbridge College (CANADA)
Increasingly, educational programs participate in accreditation systems and claim that their status as an “accredited program” is evidence of high quality. But are such claims valid? And what does “high quality” really mean? This paper describes the accreditation system of the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE), currently used to accredit social work undergraduate and graduate programs across Canada. The accreditation system is in place to examine the extent to which social work educational programs meet the standards set by CASWE. Using the Canadian Social Work Accreditation system as a case example, this paper examines what accreditation systems are intended to achieve, how they operate, and identifies their benefits and limitations. The analysis identifies that in this era of financial constraints, there exists a tension: can standards for accreditation be set to reflect high quality or do they need to be more realistic and attainable given resource limitations faced by educational programs. This dynamic creates a fundamental dampening effect, limiting what accreditation systems can contribute to quality improvement. Nevertheless, accreditation systems bring numerous benefits including challenging educational programs to think explicitly about standards. Moreover, working toward or achieving accredited status does tend to ensure that the resources invested into a program, administrative and student support systems, as well as curricula, are organized in a manner that is likely to enhance program quality. However, it is also the case that accreditation may make more likely but cannot assure any of these benefits. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, accreditation does not typically address student learning outcomes. A different activity, program evaluation, is more suited to examine questions related to student outcomes.