EDUCATORS in Central America arehoping to raise the level of higher educationto internationally competitive standardsthrough the implementation of aregion-wide accreditation program.In the making for more than threeyears, the Central American AccreditationCouncil (CCA) recently selected its firstexecutive director, Marianela Aguilar, whoofficially began the council’s work lastweek. Aguilar is the former director of theAcademic Evaluation Center at theUniversity of Costa Rica (UCR).Officials say an accreditation systemwill create minimum qualification standardsand facilitate an exchange of ideas to thebenefit of the region’s approximately700,000 university students.“BY raising the academic standards ofCentral American higher education towardinternational standards, our universitieswill gradually integrate more and moreinto the world economy,” said Councilvice-president Alejandro Cruz.“This is important not just for the globalizationof dollars, but also for what isheld very dearly at the university level –the globalization of knowledge,” he added.The regional accreditation programcould also allow for the greater mobility ofstudents and professionals between countries,according to Cruz. It will provide aminimum quality for university degrees,recognized across borders.IN 1985, there were fewer than 40 privateuniversities in Central America, accordingto CCA statistics. In less than 20 yearsthat number has more than tripled to 139.In Costa Rica, the number of degreeprograms also more than tripled, from 400in 1985 to 1,400 in 2000. The country nowboasts more than 200,000 students in 50private and four public universities.While these numbers mean higher educationis now available to a much largerpopulation, for many in the educationalfield the time has come to improve quality,not quantity.“When you speak of educational coveragehere, I believe we have already satisfied(the need). We are over-saturated,”said Sergio Calvo, executive director of theNational Council of Superior Education inPrivate Universities (CONESUP).“NOW what we need to do is improvethe quality of the institutions we alreadyhave. This is my new mission,” said Calvo,who recently took over the director position.CONESUP operates under the Ministryof Education, and inspects privateuniversities to determine if they have completedlegal requirements to open.However, CONESUP is not an accreditationprogram. Limited resources oftenrestrict its capacity to re-inspect schools toensure they are still maintaining minimumrequirements, Calvo said.BEYOND certification by CONESUP,Costa Rican public and private universitiescan apply for accreditation from the HigherEducation National Accreditation System(SINAES). However, SINAES accreditsdegree programs, not entire universities.Since the system was started five yearsago, officials have accredited 18 programs.The accreditation lasts for four years, afterwhich universities must reapply.The goal of SINAES is to give CostaRicans more confidence in their universities,according to director Mayra Alvarado.Programs that have applied but beendenied SINAES approval are working toimprove, she said.María José Lopez, a 23-year-old studentof dentistry at Universidad Latina, aSINAES-accredited degree, said, “Our programis stronger now that it has been accredited,and has much more credibility.”RATHER than duplicate the role ofSINAES, the CCA will work as an umbrellaorganization over pre-existing accreditationprograms within each Central Americancountry. The council will also work to createaccreditation systems within countries thatdo not already have established systems.“It’s unusual for a degree program toask itself how it is doing, how it can betteritself, how it can form a long-term plan toarrive at its goals,” Alvarado said. Butaccreditation forces these questions to beanswered, she added.Much can be learned in the accreditationprocess itself, agreed Kenneth Carpio,a student representative on the CCA andMaster’s degree candidate at UCR.UNDER the regional accreditationcouncil, university programs undergo aninternal evaluation and an external evaluation,Carpio explained.The internal evaluation is performed bypeople within the country’s university system,and familiar with the parameters ordemands in the national context.People familiar with the program ofstudy, but not necessarily the individualuniversity, perform the external evaluation.This allows for an outsider’s perspective,Carpio said.Nevertheless, Carpio, who is writinghis thesis on accreditation, is not sure thesystem is the best tool to use in improvingeducation, particularly in other CentralAmerican countries.“When you have schools in Guatemalathat indigenous students aren’t evenallowed to attend, how is this going tohelp?” he asked.ACCREDITATION is more valuablefor engineers and doctors than for thosestudying sociology or art, he added.“It’s a system of control, but it reallydepends on the career,” agreed 22-year-oldEsteban Arce, also a dentistry student atUniversidad Latina.The CCA will likely establish separateengineering and agriculture accreditationprograms, said Cruz, who was formerly thepresident of the Technology Institute ofCosta Rica (ITCR).The Federated Association of Architectsand Engineers is holding a forum onengineering accreditation Aug. 11-13, Cruzsaid.“With the free-trade agreement (withthe United States), engineering will be oneof the most affected careers, with the transferof jobs between countries,” he said.The council will begin with a budget ofapproximately $70,000. The council officewill be based at the UCR Faculty ofEducation, until next year when they hope toobtain funding for new headquarters.The council was established lastNovember at a meeting of the CentralAmerican Superior Council of Universities(CSUCA) and ratified in March at a meetingfor Central American Education andCultural Cooperation in San José. Sincethen, the council has begun initial work innearly every participating country.While the hope is to improve highereducation in all Central America, the goalis not to create homogenous institutions,Cruz said, adding that the process mustrespect the individual qualities of eachinstitution and country.