Is Canadian engineering accreditation a gold standard?

Anyone associated with the Engineers Canada (EC) accreditation system, the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB), which accredits undergraduate engineering programs at Canadian colleges and universities, will hear repeatedly that our engineering accreditation system is the global gold standard that others would like to have. In 2007, PEO’s Licensing Process Task Force’s final report to Council stated: “Canada’s engineering accreditation system is the envy of the rest of the world. Many other countries are now in the process of establishing accreditation systems for their engineering and technology programs, and CEAB volunteers and staff are frequently called upon to advise and assist them by virtue of Canada’s acknowledged expertise in this area.”

In the same year, our United States counterpart, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), resolved to become the international gold standard and accredit programs at non-US institutions and phase out the “substantial equivalency” system favoured by EC. ABET now accredits programs in 30 countries while EC has substantially equivalent agreements with two. So maybe the days of us being the gold standard are over, if they ever existed at all?

In 1920, several US licensing boards formed what is currently known as the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). To ensure reciprocity of registration, a standardized examination system was developed: the modern fundamentals of engineering exam. By 1936, the forerunner of ABET, the Engineers’ Council for Professional Development, started to accredit whole programs. In the same year, the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE)—the forerunner of EC—was founded. Three decades later, our accreditation system came into existence.

ABET fits into the US system by accrediting engineering programs and graduates who are qualified to take the NCEES fundamentals of engineering exam. Thus, the US has a two-stage academic process, whereas our system has only one: an accredited degree. The ABET syllabus is determined by 35 professional societies and the fundamentals of engineering exams set by NCEES on behalf of the state regulators. The Canadian syllabus is solely the responsibility of the EC board of the CEAB, consisting of at least six regulator-appointed members and six EC board-appointed members-at-large, acting as the main advisor. Hence, our regulators are the major decision-makers in deciding the undergraduate curriculum, with our universities and colleges being the regulated that must follow the curriculum defined by the regulators if they wish to be accredited. This unique system appears to have served our profession well. However, in other countries, professional societies and educators play a far greater role in defining the curricula. Maybe the tacit preclusion of such groups gives us our much-envied system?     

The keystone of our system is the “minimum path” concept that specifies the amount of instructional time all students must receive in engineering science, natural science, mathematics, engineering design and complementary studies. These components have not changed since the 1960s, although the amounts required have been subject to modest amendments. Recently, an “other” category was introduced to be used by universities and colleges to describe curriculum elements complementary to the technical instruction, but how this category differs from complementary studies is not clear.

In 1995, the accreditation unit (AU) was introduced to measure content, with 1800 AUs being the minimum requirement, within which 1545 AUs were prescribed to cover the five components, leaving 255 AUs largely to the discretion of the universities and colleges: “The CEAB gives sympathetic consideration to departures from these criteria in any case in which it is convinced that well-considered innovation in engineering education is in progress.” Later, the 1800 AU minimum was adjusted so that it was “expected that accredited programs will have additional accreditation units to demonstrate innovation….” So, apparently, the discretionary 255 accreditation units had proved insufficient to demonstrate innovation.

But how many additional AUs would be required? The actual number of units required appeared somewhat arbitrary and ad-hoc. The National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science requested that a precise “absolute” definition be provided. Eventually, the EC board implemented an 8 per cent increase to the original program minimum. The universities and colleges were given time to make these adjustments with the new minimum becoming mandatory only in 2014–2015. The minimum components remained the same, but now 405 AUs were for innovation. By 2015–2016, an average engineering program had just over 2100 AUs, corresponding to between 26 and 29 in-class hours per week, considerably more, by as much as 40 per cent, than in the US and the United Kingdom.

For regulators, then, our present system could be described as the gold standard in terms of quantitative input measurements in both scale and topics. They define the curriculum content and the minimum number of hours of instruction required. Some flexibility is allowed, as 20 per cent of the overall program (compared with 40 per cent in the US) may be decided by universities and colleges, as long as the course content deals with at least one but no more than three of the major components, with each representing at least 25 per cent of the overall content. There are no stated educational or quality assurance reasons for these specifications, but they enable curriculum components to be readily identifiable during accreditation visits. 

Curriculum components are not the only input measurement. For example, unlike in other systems, there is an EC requirement for a minimum number of academic faculty to be licensed engineers, with compulsory registration necessary for deans and program leaders; licensure in any other country is not acceptable. However, if Canadian students study overseas for part of their degree, “engineering science and engineering design curriculum content can be transferred, provided the courses have been taught by engineers who are permitted to practise engineering according to the laws of the jurisdiction where the transfer credits are acquired.” Thus, while the EC criteria may be considered rather severe by some, they are usually written in such a way to provide as much flexibility as the regulators deem safe.

In 1989, EC, along with five other international agencies, became founding signatories of the Washington Accord, an international agreement recognizing that its accreditation of university-level programs was substantially equivalent. According to the Washington Accord website, there are currently 19 signatories, and “the Washington Accord model has become the international gold standard for mutual recognition of engineering education.” However, being part of the accord now requires that our programs use learning-outcomes-based assessment, partly as a result of increasing pressure from governments to demonstrate efficiency and cost effectiveness. So, instead of instructors being assessed on what they have taught, students are assessed on what they have learned. The commitment to the outcomes approach was made in 2005 by Washington Accord signatories, subsequently becoming compulsory in our system in June 2015. 

The learning outcomes approach was embodied in ABET’s “revolutionary” engineering criteria in 2000. The criteria required programs to state their educational objectives, link them to specified student learning outcomes—11 in all, now consolidated into seven—and demonstrate how these outcomes were to be measured. These requirements would be additional to the usual measurement of program inputs.

In Canada, efforts were made by EC in conjunction with CEAB and the National Council of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science to formulate an outcomes-based system. Eventually, EC decided in 2008 to wholly adopt the 12 graduate attributes of the Washington Accord compliance, requiring universities and colleges to “demonstrate that the graduates of a program possess these attributes,” but exactly how universities and colleges were expected to measure and demonstrate the attributes was not addressed. It would be in 2016 that an interpretive statement was provided by CEAB, stating the “expectations regarding minimum levels of conformance” with graduate criteria with the intention “to assure common reporting requirements across institutions.” The appearance of a lengthy passage to the full implementation of outcomes is somewhat misleading, since having decided on the fundamental way ahead a great deal of time and effort has been expended by all stakeholders to bring the system to fruition.

Nevertheless, the decision to incorporate the full suite of Washington Accord exemplars in our criteria, unlike the approaches of other signatories, has never been fully explained or at least understood. The accord itself states: “The graduate attributes provide a point of reference for bodies to describe the outcomes of substantially equivalent qualification…[they] do not, in themselves, constitute an international standard for accredited qualifications but provide a widely accepted common reference.” Maybe EC’s policy played a part in the protracted implementation process, or perhaps it has been the regulators’ perceived need to maintain our gold standard of accreditation. Only time will tell, as our outcome system is still in its infancy, and not all regulators appear convinced or are at least agnostic.

Normally associated with outcomes is a different quantitative measure of curriculum content with more emphasis placed on what students learn rather than what they are taught. Thus, in many jurisdictions, content measurement has two components: instructional time and learning time. The concept of the latter is viewed with trepidation by some regulators and universities and colleges, which may explain why our students spend more time in class than others.

So, is the EC accreditation system the global gold standard? Most certainly our constituent agencies appear generally comfortable with the system, since they are key players. Yet the educational overtures for change should not be unappreciated if our system is to maintain its universal credibility.  

Graham Reader, PhD, P.Eng., is a mechanical engineering professor and former dean at the University of Windsor. He served on the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board until 2017.