Assessing the academic impact of a school on society is indeed an old story. For a long time, this practice has been based on faculty reputation, the quality of intellectual contributions and occasionally the professional glory of graduates. In 1916, the AACSB began offering institutional accreditation for business schools in the USA. The purpose was to provide applicants with more relevant information about the quality of these schools.
One hundred years later, this assessment exercise has become a global practice and includes information on institutional impact and innovation thanks to standards and performance indicators. More than 700 schools have now been accredited worldwide.
Today, institutions are in competition as they strive to assess impact. Bachelor’s and master’s programs are required to document their learning and teaching efficiency as well as the relevance and rigorousness of their knowledge and its acceptance by working professionals.
These current trends are forcing doctoral schools to ask: Can and should doctoral education be assessed in a similar manner? For the majority of academics in charge of managing doctoral programs, the answer is no. The argument behind this is simply that the level of education is different from professional or even knowledge-based programs.
However, doctoral education is a process designed to produce an original intellectual contribution and this does not negate the importance of impact for academic research. A doctoral work should at least have an impact on science and the academic community. This mission could then be transformed into a quality indicator that is worthy of evaluation. Analyzing the impact of a work runs parallel to its obligation to be relevant and rigorous. Doctoral education only works properly when there is an accepted impact and purpose. This characteristic is the starting point for an evaluation of doctoral education impact.
This move towards accountability is still a matter of discussion for the academic community. The academic outcomes of teaching and research processes have to be documented. This would allow peers to share their opinion of how an output aligns with the mission of the institution. The reports generated by this assessment process provide the basis for measuring impact.
A unique and global definition of impact for the academic field is not yet a reality and for many academics it is not reasonable to try and rubber stamp one. Nevertheless certain points have been agreed upon and a few guidelines can be set to produce relevant assessment of output. The starting point is to conduct an inventory of inputs (human, financial, logistic, etc.) and verify that they are appropriate for the desired outputs.
- The first step should be to measure and compare outputs in order to verify they are in alignment with the institution’s mission as defined by its stakeholders.
- The second step could be to assess the rigor and relevance of outputs in relation to the innovative environment in which an institution operates. This second step also provides the means to check if produced outputs offer an institution a specific type of academic performance or quality (both of which may help assess impact).
- The third step should measure the direct impact of two basic academic outcomes: teaching and creating knowledge. This impact must then be compared to promises delivered to students and those concerning their contribution to theory, practice and pedagogy.
To achieve these three steps within the conservative confines of academia, it is necessary to create consensus within an institution. Generalized agreements must be reached on accountability, vision, strategy and more generally, the need for all actions to be part of a culture of social responsibility.
The purpose of impact assessment should be limited to supporting the principle of continuous improvement. This attitude is all the more crucial in the 21st century as our education systems face dramatic changes in knowledge dissemination and creation. Teaching methods are radically different, students are digital natives, skill needs are changing at a fast pace, and in many countries, education systems are under pressure due to a perceived lack of social efficiency.
Institutions have a responsibility to demonstrate their positive impact. Applicants for Doctoral programs and stakeholders in the doctoral process must be able to see that an institution is not only accomplishing the mission it was given, but also acting as an instrument of development and a factory for freedom as Immanuel Kant said in 1798 when he was in charge of Prussian Higher Education.