In the year 2000, ZEvA introduced the new procedure of cluster accreditation. At an early stage, the agency had realized the necessity of reducing the expenditure of time and money caused by accreditation procedures. This insight led to the idea of bundling closely related study programs in a cluster. Subsequently, all programs within the cluster are accredited by the same group of peer reviewers. This procedure also makes it easier to account for the common features shared by many study programs.
Cluster accreditation enables higher education institutions or larger faculties to have their study programs accredited within a relatively short time and with reduced effort. Some institutions even had their entire range of Bachelor and Master programs accredited in this way. In such cases, the common features of all study programs offered by the institution are identified and evaluated by means of system assessment before the start of the actual program accreditation procedure. Thus, like system accreditation, which was introduced in 2007, cluster accreditation puts a strong focus on the interdependencies between individual programs. In contrast to system accreditation, however, cluster accreditation does not require the prior implementation of an institution-wide quality assurance system. Therefore, it can also be applied to individual organizational subunits of a higher education institution.
Cluster accreditation (with optional prior system assessment) is especially suitable for the evaluation of joint programs, which allow for various combinations of subjects taught by different institutes or faculties (as, for example, teacher training programs).
All study programs that are to be assessed as part of a cluster should be closely related, that is, the affinities between them should go beyond the mere association with a particular academic culture (e. g. the humanities or natural sciences). Each academic discipline included in the cluster must be represented by at least one member of the group of peer reviewers. In case each discipline is represented by only one peer, the reasons for this need to be explicitly stated. Needless to say, representatives of professional practice and members of the student body are also involved in cluster accreditations. The final accreditation decision, however, is left to the group of peer reviewers who generate a vote on each individual study program.
For cluster accreditation, the site visit needs to be organized in such a way that each individual study program can be checked for compliance with the regulations of the Accreditation Council, the Standing Conference of State Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK) and federal state laws. Depending on the size of the cluster, it may be necessary to extend the duration of the site visit to two or three days.
Through the Specimen Decree of the federal states, the number of study programmes or subjects per Cluster is limited to ten. The Accreditation Council can verify the correct composition of the cluster before the actual procedure, as to avoid a denial of the application for accreditation after the assessment.