International Trends in Engineering Accreditation and Quality Assurance

B. S. Oberst, PhD.

James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, USA

R. C. Jones, PhD., P.E.

World Expertise LLC, Falls Church, VA, USA

Keywords: Engineering education, accreditation, quality assurance

ABSTRACT: Decreased deference on the part of public officials to the resource needs of higher education; public demands for accountability; the shrinking globe and permeable political borders; the requirements of on-the-job training; competition from new educational institutions both virtual and real; and change as the only global constant: all these trends are driving rapid changes in engineering education. The article describes how countries such as Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, Jordan, and India are responding to these six trends. Four types of strategies are seen as common around the globe. 1) Engineering educators are looking to accreditation as a means of quality assurance. 2) They are considering outcomes assessment and benchmarking as alternatives to criteria specification as a means of assuring quality. 3) They have begun accepting professional engineers as partners in engineering education. 4) And they are increasingly looking to accreditation as a basis for cross-border recognition of graduates.



Traveling with the speed of a new strain of flu, six trends are profoundly affecting engineering education around the world:

·         Decreased deference on the part of public officials to the resource needs of higher education;

·         Public demand for accountability;

·         The shrinking globe and its more permeable political borders;

·         A belief that practical training must start at the university, requiring closer academic-industry collaboration;

·         Competition created by new, privately funded educational institutions, both virtual and real;

·         The conviction that change will be the only global constant in the foreseeable future. 

The decade of the 1990s witnessed a series of discrete events which, seen together, indicate that we are entering into a period of rapid change in engineering education around the globe.  While each of these events was prompted by local circumstances, each reflects the pressure exerted by these six trends and a sense of urgency for finding appropriate response strategies. Consider the following:

Australia: The Futures Conference was held in July 1995, during which participants from universities, industries and professional organizations explored the coming world of engineering practice. [Webster, 2000]

Denmark: The Danish Centre for Quality Assurance and Evaluation of Higher Education was established in 1992 to operate independently under the Danish Ministry of Education. [Jensen, 2000] 

Germany: The German Rectors’ Conference and the Science Council recommended in 1995 the establishment of a system of quality assurance in German higher education. [Heitmann, 2000]

EU: The Council of the European Union in 1998 called upon member states to establish quality assurance systems as a means of improving teaching and learning. [Heitmann, 2000]

Hong Kong: In June 1993 the Accreditation Board of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers was established to prepare for entry into the Washington Accord and to establish independence from the UK’s Engineering Council for purposes of accreditation. [Kwok, 2000]

India: In 1994 the Indian National Board of Accreditation was formed, modeling its procedures after the US Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, but adapted to local situations. [Natarajan, 2000]

Jordan: In 1990, under a new law passed in 1989, the first private university in Jordan was opened, responding to educational needs which the public sector was unable to meet. [Issa, 2000]

Mexico: In 1994 Mexico shifted control over engineering accreditation from the educational institutions themselves to the Engineering Education Accreditation Board made up of representatives from education, industry, and government. [Ocampo-Canabal, 2000]

USA: the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) signed memoranda of understanding with engineering organizations in Russia, France, Ukraine and UNESCO’s Regional Office for Science and Technology for Latin America and the Caribbean to provide consultation and guidance in the development of accreditation procedures. [Phillips et al, 2000]

As we look at engineering education in ten countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Mexico, the U.K. and the USA), it is interesting to note that despite wide differences in their circumstances, the response of the engineering education community to the six trends listed above has been similar in many respects.  Engineering educators around the world are looking to accreditation as a means of quality assurance.  They are considering outcomes assessment and benchmarking as alternatives to criteria specifications as a means of measuring quality. They have begun accepting professional engineers and employers as partners in engineering education.  And they are increasingly using accreditation of engineering programs as a basis for cross-border recognition of graduates.



Accreditation and quality assurance are not synonymous.  Accreditation includes quality assurance but there may be quality assurance procedures without formal accreditation.  Formal accreditation is in today’s world the political face of quality assurance, a form of public acknowledgement from a body of respected professionals that procedures of quality control have been carried out and the results deemed good. 

Accreditation as a movement has received a boost from public officials demanding increased accountability from the institutions that they fund.  When institutions of higher learning have been accused of being detached, self-serving and inner-directed, adopting a time-tested, quality assurance mechanism controlled by academics, employers and practitioners has been a means of assuring the public that their monies are being well spent. 

In some countries, accreditation of engineering programs has a considerable history. In the UK, accreditation began in the 1960s.  The Canadian Accreditation Board was established in 1965. In the US the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has been in existence since 1932. 

Motivation for these early efforts was varied.  In the US, for example, where there is no centralized Ministry of Education, there is nonetheless intense interest on the part of the Federal and state governments in higher education and how it runs.  The entire tradition of voluntary self-regulation in US higher education can be seen as a trade-off meant to keep governmental meddling to a minimum.  Fortunately, this effort was begun before the huge boom in US college enrollments after the end of World War II.

In many places, however, engineering accreditation began only in the past decade, frequently under considerable external pressure, and applied to large numbers of existing programs. Funding shortfalls and enrollment shifts have caused greater public scrutiny of higher education budgets. An expectation of higher returns (i.e. accelerated economic development) for the public dollar invested in colleges and universities has led to more questioning of how money is being spent. Increased student mobility has also played a role in setting the stage for increased use of accreditation.  Migration of students within the curricula of an individual university, a familiar enough event, has given way to the migration of students around regions of the world.  Students are not just electing to leave their homeland for better educational opportunities: they are also being actively recruited by countries such as Australia, which has built some parts of its higher education system to accommodate these new students from southeast Asia and other nearby regions.  Accreditation plays a role in establishing the quality of the education offered and thus influences enrollment patterns.  (What happens when this steam of students diminishes is a separate issue.)

But whether a country has a long tradition of engineering accreditation or has only recently set it in place, the procedures governing this elaborate and very public form of quality assurance are continuing to evolve.  And while there is some convergence toward models associated with ABET, there is also recognition that local circumstances must influence procedures.

The European Union, for example, recently took a cautious approach to quality assurance. In 1994 the EU conducted a pilot project following up on preliminary work done by France, the Netherlands, the UK and Denmark.  The goal was to familiarize member nations to the concepts of self-evaluation, external evaluation, site visits and summary assessment and reports.  This method was consistent with the EU’s policy of balancing respect for individual traditions against its interest in promoting integration.  [Heitmann, 2000]

Mexico’s experience with accreditation over the past forty years reflects how engineering educators, engineering professionals and the government responded to a swiftly changing environment.  Beginning with a government-run certification of educational programs in a time of relatively low enrollments, it gave way in the mid-1970s to the National Coordination for Planning Higher Education, reflecting expanding enrollments. This planning group was itself replaced by the National Commission for Evaluation of Higher Education, whose duty it was to establish accreditation and evaluation processes to help improve the quality of higher education. Under this latter system, responsibility for evaluation was in 1991 placed in the hands of the Interinstitutional Committees for the Evaluation of Higher Education, run by academics. Significantly, by 1994 this, too, was changed.  The accreditation system was handed over to an association, which includes participation by members of various sectors  and deliberately mirrors the approaches of both Canada and the US. [9] Through all these events run themes of increased access to higher learning in Mexico, and of course, the creation and implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

Patterns similar to those in Mexico might well be observed over the next decade in other countries, but at an even more accelerated pace, as academics, professionals and government officials try to use accreditation to keep engineering education in their countries accountable, up to date, in synch with global professional standards, demographics, economic trends, international trade opportunities, and public expectations.



Within the context of accreditation there are several definitions of quality and methods of measuring it.  The newest buzzword in international engineering accreditation is outcomes assessment as a means of insuring quality.  This approach, formalized by ABET and scheduled to be implemented in the US full-scale beginning in 2001, includes the requirement that engineering programs have in place permanent procedures for quality assurance. Through a variety of international activities and agreements, ABET is actively advocating outcomes assessment as a means of moving away from the imposition of monolithic lists of standards and criteria imposed on institutions and toward greater emphasis on the responsibility of engineering programs to prepare fully competent entry-level engineers. 

Despite the powerful attraction of the outcomes approach, and the advantages inherent in coalescing under ABET’s umbrella of accreditation, quality assurance procedures used in various countries still differ greatly depending on where the country is in the development of its educational system.

It is interesting to examine a spectrum of quality assurance approaches in several countries, from criteria based to outcomes based, and to determine the appropriateness of each to the local circumstances.

In Jordan, for example, by the late 1980s the government recognized that standards were needed to regulate the growth of the entirely new, privately financed engineering schools which were seen as a needed supplement to the limited public institutions the country could afford to build and maintain.  Dean Sameh Salah Issa [2000] of the College of Engineering of the Hashemite University has described and explained the standards established by Jordanian law for all significant aspects of a new university.  These include land and buildings, office space, libraries, faculty-student ratios, composition of the faculty according to rank, student residences, sports facilities, infrastructure, and so on.  To some, these standards might appear to reflect the input based criteria that were used for so long to define quality until the advent of outcomes based assessment.  But for Jordan’s situation, where the country to trying to tap private investments for the expansion of its higher education system while maintaining high academic quality, such start-up standards, expressed in square feet and ratios, make perfect sense.

In Denmark, the Rector of the Technical University of Denmark, Dr. Hans Peter Jensen [2000], has given considerable thought to the value of benchmarking, and recommends that it be used as a quality assurance method for groups of similar institutions in several countries.  According to Dr. Jensen, this approach is particularly well suited to small countries where one or two institutions may hold a virtual monopoly on education, thus making within-country comparisons less useful.  Dr. Jensen is careful, however, to point out that universities differ greatly from industry, which invented the concept and practice of benchmarking.  Universities must use benchmarking for improvement, not for program closure.

Günter Heitmann [2000]of the Technical University Berlin writes of interest in the application of ISO 9001 and TQM methodologies in various European universities, but warms of their limitations in the academic world. Of these two methodologies, TQM has found the greatest support among German universities, according to Heitmann, because its approaches “ . . . are more process instead of product oriented, focus on customers as well as on employee satisfaction and stimulate a continuous improvement of quality.” For the moment, German engineering appears to be carefully courting several different quality assurance approaches even as the entire shape of its engineering diplomas and the institutions, which award them, are under close scrutiny.  If the parallel systems of Universities and Fachhochschulen now in place are replaced by a system, which offers sequenced undergraduate then graduate level education, quality assurance methods will inevitably change as well.

Australia has bravely tackled the seemingly complex problem of quality assurance in distance education engineering programs.  While educational publications around the world are filled with angst-ridden discussions of the impact of distance education, the IEAust (Institution of Engineers, Australia) took on this challenge in a remarkably balanced manner: The advent of national competency standards for professional engineers has . . . created an objective reference point against which the outcomes of both face-to-face and distance education programs can be compared.  The overall strengths and weaknesses of distance education programs are now reasonably well understood, and, in determining an approach to accreditation, it was considered sufficient to focus on specific competencies defined in the national competency standards where distance education program might arguable offer less scope for development and demonstration than the otherwise equivalent face-to-face programs. [Webster, 2000]

The bottom line is that if the objective is clear, a way can be found to determine whether the objective has been met and quality assured.

So although there are persuasive reasons for declaring that inputs are out and outcomes are in, when examining quality assurance approaches around the world it makes sense to take a developmental approach.  That means accepting that individual countries may fast-forward through a variety of methodologies as a way of improving and ensuring high quality in a rapidly changing universe of engineering education and practice. 



It is only recently that university walls became permeable.  The tradition in universities has been to remain apart from society in order to retain objectivity.  For long ages, this was characteristic of engineering programs as well as of the most esoteric of academic disciplines.  But once those walls developed pores, the progression was rapid toward substantial interaction between the academic world and many outside stakeholders.  In engineering, involvement has been of two kinds: requiring students to obtain some kind of real world practical experience as an integral and evaluated part of their academic program, and admitting “outsiders” into the advisory and even the decision-making bodies controlling the engineering curriculum.

In some countries work experience is required of engineering students prior to beginning the academic sequence. In Germany, for example, students admitted to the Technische Universität/Technische Hochschule are required to have a half-year of internship begun before admission and completed during semester breaks.  [Heitmann, 2000]

In the UK, the professional experience takes place in a period of time after the diploma is obtained but prior to licensure. It must be validated for the licensure process.  [Levy, 2000]

Speaking to the issue of including preparation for the world of work into the curriculum, the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers . . . believes the project work could coordinate all subject matters in a programme and students should perform an appropriate group project to practice human relationship skills in project management.  Its assessment should be an important factor in the final award. [Kwok, 2000]

ABET’s wording on this issue is: Students must be prepared for engineering practice through the curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier coursework and incorporating engineering standards and realistic constraints that include most of the following considerations: economic; environmental; sustainability; manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and political. [ABET, 2000]

Imposing workplace-like requirements on students in the form of curriculum assignments is one gaining ground around the world as a way of exposing students to professional practice.  The approach imposes an obligation on the faculty to be themselves familiar with engineering practice in a variety of non-academic settings.

Accreditation and quality assurance procedures are requiring increased involvement from both academics from outside institutions and non-academics.  There are some associated problems, however.

Engaging in quality control has the effect of opening up the entire engineering education process, especially when academics from other institutions are invited to participate as members of visiting committees or evaluators. Spending time studying another program at another institution often results in cross-fertilization of ideas and increased openness to the process of self-examination and improvement.  When professional engineers are engaged in the quality control activities and accreditation, valuable networks and relationships are often established, to the long-term benefit of the students. 

But as engineering educators in some countries are discovering, drawing professional engineers and employers into the accreditation process is not a simple task.  In India, for example: There are a large number of programs of Engineering Colleges and Polytechnics, which are waiting to be accredited; there is an acute shortage of competent Assessors, particularly from Industry [Natarajan, 2000].

In addition, there is the task of training members to conduct accreditation reviews, since untrained visitors are of little value.  ABET has obtained support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and others to conduct training workshops for members of visiting teams, responding to this urgent need.

The former chief executive of the IEAust, Dr. John Webster [2000], nicely sums up the comprehensive vision of partnerships that came out of the Final Report, Review of Engineering Education (1996): Universities will have no monopoly on  the provision of professional engineering education . . . The preferred model should be for partnerships to emerge between industry, universities and government; partnerships that allow each partner to contribute to and gain appropriate benefits from particular aspects of engineering education. Funding systems and taxation policies should encourage collaborative activities, and government should work closely with industry and the profession to support the development and operation of a coherent and comprehensive system of advanced engineering centers and networks to address identified industry needs and mobilize long-term industry influence and involvement.



The relationship between accreditation and licensure continues to be problematic in engineering. Graduation from an accredited institution is a requisite, but other elements such as professional experience, in-person interviews, and additional education and training are key elements in licensure decisions in various countries.

In the UK, for example, registration as either a Chartered Engineer (Ceng) or Incorporated Engineer (Ieng) requires the appropriate education base from an accredited program, Initial Professional Development (IPD) which consists of validated experience and training at an appropriate level, and a review of the candidate’s credentials including a personal interview. [Levy, 2000]

Graduation from an accredited engineering school, plus additional training and professional experience, are required for registration as a Corporate Member of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers.  [Kwok, 2000]

These brief summaries of registration requirement do not do justice to the challenge facing anyone hoping to bring about progress toward international licensure.  From the Canadian perspective: The most important …[requirement for bi- or multilateral agreements] …is certainly the confidence in each other’s mechanisms to regulate, control, modify and sanction their different constituencies which deal with the delivery of the final product, namely an engineer with the full right of practice. . . The COMPLEXITY of the monitoring system is inversely proportional to the CONFIDENCE that both (or multi) partners have among them.  If these control mechanisms are too extensive, the burden of the agreement becomes more important than the possible advantages. [Ryan-Bacon and Delisle, 2000]

The irony is that despite the recognized leadership of the United States in the area of accreditation, licensure in that country is fragmented among 55 different states and territories, thus effectively preventing it from exercising equivalent leadership in this related domain.  [Jones, 1999]

Progress has been made, however, through the establishment of the Washington Accord.  This agreement, first signed in 1989 by six English-speaking countries, commits all signatories to recognizing the engineering degrees accredited by other signatories.  On a practical basis, this means that the initial hurdle of having an engineering degree from an accredited institution is cleared for a candidate seeking licensure, graduate education or other benefits in other countries.  The attraction of participation in such an accord is obvious and as such is a driving force in discussions in countries coming to grips with accreditation for the first time, or attempting to change their current system to make it better conform to the modern world. An equally powerful theme, however, in such discussions is the protection of employment for a one’s own citizen engineers.  So the road to global convergence in licensure  is not smooth. 



Quality assurance in engineering is an issue of vital importance to an increasingly developed world.  The complexity of the problems, which engineers will have to deal with, argues for large doses of flexibility in the manner in which engineers are educated.  The results should be generations of young engineers suited to the entire range of opportunities and problems of the real world.  The tools used to assure that the educational experience results in quality will have to be responsive to new conditions and forms of education.

Included in the constellation of organizations and institutions dedicated to the education of engineers will be increasing numbers created with the support of private investment and with an eye toward return on investment.  In some countries, such as China, where hundreds of qualified students stand in line to occupy every available university seat, the demand for new facilities and programs is a powerful lure for creative business people around the world.  Laws in China and elsewhere are changing  to permit foreign investment in new colleges and universities, but national control issues are still dominant.  Through all this, however, new universities and college are being built.  What forms of quality assurance will help guide the development of these new entrepreneurial institutions, and what sort of professional welcome will be afforded their graduates in their own country and elsewhere? 

Equally important is the impact of distance education.  National turf battles all but disappear in the face of the potential for access which instructional technology offers.  Traditional institutions can already see themselves reflected in virtual universities and colleges, as  these new organizations mimic their strengths, reject their flaws, and move speedily to offer education to large numbers of eager and ambitious students.  The question for established engineering programs is what lessons there are to be learned from the assessed quality outcomes from these distance education programs?

It appears that some tolerance for ambiguity is called for when considering prospects for improvement in engineering accreditation, quality assurance and licensure on a global scale.  Today’s breakthrough could be just a stepping-stone toward something better in the future.



The following articles appear in the Spring 2000 issue of International Journal of Engineering Education, Volume 16, Number 2.

Heitmann, Günter, Quality Assurance in German Engineering Education against the background of European developments.

Issa, Sameh Salah, Quality Assurance of Engineering in Private Universities in Jordan.

Jensen, Hans Peter, Quality Management: Danish Engineering Education.

Jones, Russel C., IJEE Guest Editorial.

Kwok, P.K., Accreditation of Engineering Degree Courses in Hong Kong.

Levy, Jack, Engineering Education in the United Kingdom: Standards, Quality Assurance and Accreditation.

Mathur, R. Mohan, and Venter, Ron. Quality Assurance of Engineering Education in Canada: its suitability for graduates working in global markets.

Natarajan, R., The Role of Accreditation in Promoting Quality Assurance of Technical Education.

Ocampo-Canabal, Fernando, Engineering Accreditation in Mexico.

Phillips, Winfred, Peterson, George D., and Aberle, Kathryn B., Quality Assurance for Engineering Education in a Changing World.

Ryan-Bacon, Wendy, and Delisle, Gilles, Canadian Approach to Global Evaluation of Engineering Education and Services.

Webster, John, Engineering Education in Australia.

See also:

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. EC2000. ABET, Baltimore, MD, USA.

Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. Website for Washington Accord (

Jones, Russel C., (1999), Cross-Border Engineering Practice. Global Journal of Engineering Education, Volume 3, Number 2, 135-138.


Bethany S. Oberst

Bethany S. Oberst is Executive Director of International Education at James Madison University. She previously served as Vice President for Academic Affairs at James Madison University, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Southwest Missouri State University, Special Assistant to the President for Strategic Planning at University of Delaware, and Department Chair of Modern Languages at Cleveland State University.


Russel C. Jones 

Russel C. Jones is a private consultant, working through World Expertise LLC to offer services in engineering education in the international arena. He previously served as Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers. Prior to that, he had a long career in education: faculty member at MIT, department chair in civil engineering at Ohio State University, dean of engineering at University of Massachusetts, academic vice president at Boston University, and President at University of Delaware.