Several universities in British Columbia have sought quality assurance accreditation in the United States, hoping to bolster standards and gain more recognition internationally.
Canada has no equivalent system for signalling that a university meets a standard of education established by the federal government.
After a seven-year process, Burnaby's Simon Fraser University this week was accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), which is headquartered in Redmond, Wash. The U.S. non-profit, which the U.S. Department of Education has granted the authority to oversee accreditation in seven states, says it exists to improve the quality of postsecondary institutions through peer review, evaluations and self-assessments.
North Vancouver's Capilano University was Canada's first to be approved for accreditation by the NWCCU in 2012, and Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops is listed as a candidate for accreditation, expecting final approval in a few years.
The University of British Columbia has chosen not to seek such accreditation, suggesting that UBC's position in international rankings speaks for itself. UBC is among the top 20 public universities in the world, and second in Canada, according to several different metrics.
Jon Driver, SFU's vice-president academic and provost, said the designation might help graduates who are seeking jobs abroad.
Dr. Driver said Canada has no comparable type of national accreditation system because education is a provincial responsibility.
"But it is actually difficult to explain this to people from outside of Canada," Dr. Driver said. "Students, their parents, colleagues from other countries are often very surprised to find that there is no national ministry for education in the country."
He said this can lead to questions regarding the quality of Canadian institutions.
Dr. Driver said he feels strongly that universities need to be able to demonstrate to the government, taxpayers and students that they meet agreed-upon standards, something he said happens in many other countries.
"I think it will become a problem as university education becomes more globalized," he said.
"There are more and more calls for international standards to be implemented – we are seeing this both in particular disciplines … and we are also seeing this at the institutional level, where there are suggestions that there should be more congruence, more similarity, between institutions that offer certain kinds of qualifications."
The accreditation process has been helpful for SFU beyond academics, enabling students from the university to participate in U.S. college sports in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Thompson Rivers University's provost and vice-president academic, Christine Bovis-Cnossen, said her school might consider a Canada-wide accreditation if one were available.
"We have decided, in the absence of a process within Canada or British Columbia, to go down this particular route to be accredited internationally," she said.
Capilano's acting president, Richard Gale, said the institution sought accreditation because it wanted to make the transfer from a college to a university guided by a set of standards.
"Demonstrating through external means that we really are paying attention to the quality of our education was very important to us," he said.
Dr. Gale said accreditation makes it easier for international students to understand what is available at the university and for students to transfer, especially to and from the United States.
Pam Ratner, UBC's vice-provost and associate vice-president, said UBC is not actively seeking international accreditation.
"I think there are other ways we can identify the standards that UBC has achieved, through the international rankings, and demand for our programs," Dr. Ratner said.
"I think we have strong relationships with many institutions and governments and funding agencies, and I think that all speaks to our accountability."
She noted that Canadians have always been confident in the standards within Canada's universities, despite the lack of a uniform system.