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Universities play an essential role in their relationship with professional bodies, says Professor Derrick Armstrong, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Registrar of The University of Sydney.
Professor Armstrong will be one of the presenters at the 8th Annual Higher Education Summit in Adelaide on April 29 and 30.
He says universities are heavily involved in professional education as training graduates with knowledge and skills is at the core of their role.
Professor Armstrong says there is currently a wide range of professional education and training courses covering various professions taking place within the university sector.
“I think it really indicates the way…in which the mission of universities has changed and become very focused around relevance to society and the way in which they support the broader goals of society and the broader economic and social prosperity and wellbeing of society.”
Professor Armstrong says professional bodies have an important role in the accrediting of professionals and as a result there has to be a very close working relationship between universities and the professional associations responsible for those accreditation processes.
“We clearly need to be absolutely sure that when we are preparing professionals for the work place they meet appropriate standards, they are highly skilled, that they come into the profession with all the background knowledge and as much experience as possible to prepare to do a highly qualified job.”
In his experience, Professor Armstrong says the vital collaboration between universities and professional bodies have been positive, constructive and open.
“They’re relationships where learning is taking place on both sides.”
However, Professor Armstrong adds that there are inevitable tensions due to the accreditation process.
“Universities are autonomous bodies and they have purposes which are to do with the promotion of knowledge, critical thinking and communication, they’re not narrow training institutions.
“But I think on the whole those things are worked out well and constructively and very rarely does one find serious disagreements or tension between those bodies.”
The extent to which the relationship between universities and professional bodies affect the academic structure of courses differs according to course and profession, Professor Armstrong says.
“The way in which professional accreditation systems work is they set the standard for entry into their profession,” he says. “They don’t tell universities how to teach [and] they don’t necessarily tell universities what to teach.”
Professor Armstrong says problems would arise were students not admitted to a profession because they have not met the standards of the professional body or if a course is not accredited because it does not meet the body’s standards.
“There is clearly, in practice, a significant role for the professional associations and accrediting bodies in working with universities on curriculum development. But I think on the whole, there is a lot of open dialogue about the nature of the curriculum.”
Professor Armstrong says while institutions may have different curriculums, what is important is that key areas are covered to a satisfactory degree.
The way in which they are covered is up to the discretion of universities and university staff. Professor Armstrong says the dialogue between universities and professional associations allows issues to be explored and consensus formed.
“It is a consensus forming operation rather than an imposition of standards.”
According to Professor Armstrong, universities are not simply training bodies but institutions concerned with knowledge.
“That’s the development of new knowledge, the critical assessment and evaluation [and] analysis of knowledge and ideas,” he says.
Professor Armstrong believes academic scholarship and research are important parts of any university course as they add enormous value to professional education.
“It’s important that scholarship is there and I think that from a professional accreditation body perspective and a professional association perspective, I think that is welcomed and acknowledged as valuable”.
Professor Armstrong says there also needs to be a balance between the need for equipping graduates with the skills and knowledge of a profession and their ability to reflect upon and develop that knowledge and practice.
In terms of the process for accrediting professional degrees, degree programs are accredited by an external body such as a professional association or a national or state institute.
Professor Armstrong says the accrediting process involved the external body visiting universities, looking at the curriculum, investigating standards, discussions with staff, students and institutional managers.
“They will make an evaluation as to the extent in which the course is meeting the requirements, the standards of the profession so then they form their judgement about whether to accredit or not to accredit the courses in question.”
Professor Armstrong says universities have no governing role in relation to the professions.
“That is not our role whatsoever. We are a provider of education and a provider of qualifications but we often do have participation of university staff in the higher level accreditation bodies.”
This involvement of experts from universities within the professional accreditation process ensured that professional accrediting bodies were participating in the development of curriculum rather than controlling it.
In his presentation at the Higher Education summit, Professor Armstrong says he hopes delegates will leave with a message that there is a very active, strong and valuable collaboration between professional associations and universities.
While there have been situations of tension and disagreement, he believes both parties complement each other and lead to the enhancement of professional education.
“I think where you have got that openness, that dialogue between professional associations and universities…there is going to be a situation which is to the advantage of all and particularly to the advantage of students.