Plans are under way at the African Union to establish a continental quality assurance and accreditation agency that will measure, compare and harmonise the performance of higher education institutions and facilitate professional mobility across the continent.
According to Dr Yohannes Woldetensae, a senior education expert in the department of human resources, science and technology at the African Union Commission (AUC), there is an urgent need to make African higher education more efficient and competitive.
In an exclusive interview with University World News, Woldetensae explained that the higher education system in Africa faced challenges ranging from low participation rates and high student demand to inadequate learning facilities, shortages of qualified staff and outdated teaching methods.
“Most African universities are also characterised by weak research and publishing, high workloads, a mismatch between graduate outputs and employment, low-quality management systems and limited capacity of governance and leadership,” he said.
The AUC is pressing ahead with setting up a pan-African higher education accreditation agency, although AfriQAN – the African Quality Assurance Network – exists at the Association of African Universities in Ghana.
A proposed African quality assurance framework is expected to develop mechanisms, in the absence of national regulatory agencies, for quality assurance and accreditation in many nations. “In some countries, quality monitoring and accreditation is used only in private higher education institutions,” said Woldetensae.
The current situation
So far, 21 African countries have established higher education accreditation bodies. They are: Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
But according to Professor Jean-Pierre Ezin, commissioner for human resources, science and technology at the AUC, most accreditation bodies in Africa do not have dedicated units to monitor performance.
“We need a quality-rating mechanism that will be instrumental in ensuring that the performance of African higher education institutions can be compared against common criteria and enhances their global competitiveness,” Ezin said.
Ideally, a continental accreditation agency will have the mandate to accredit national and other regulatory agencies and assist countries to establish regulatory bodies where they do not exist. “The new body will also set modalities of comparability of degrees, diplomas and certificates in different countries,” said Ezin.
According to an AUC concept paper, the proposed pan-African quality and accreditation body will have the power to enhance quality in all private, state and federal higher education institutions, including open and distance universities across the continent.
Dr Beatrice Njenga, head of the education division at the AUC, noted that the goal was to improve quality in higher education and that, to this end, minimum standards needed to be set.
The African Union is encouraging the establishment of regional accreditation bodies to enhance the mobility of students and make it easier to transfer academic credit across national borders. There are currently few such regional agencies and they have limited capacity.
They include the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education (CAMES), the Inter-University Council for East Africa, the Higher Education Quality Management Initiative for Southern Africa, the Association of Arab Universities and the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education.
There are also plans to explore how the proposed accreditation agency could establish partnerships with the Association of African universities, AfriQAN (the African Quality Assurance Network), and the African Council for Distance Education. According to Woldetensae, all three have been involved in quality assurance in higher education.
The African Union also intends to cooperate with Erasmus Mundus in Europe, with the objective of increasing the mobility of scholars, researchers and students in the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of states and in European countries.
“Recognition of degrees from African universities by Erasmus Mundus would increase the free movement of faculty and students inside and outside Africa,” said Woldetensae
The idea of having an accreditation agency for African universities was embedded in the Second Decade for African Education 2006-2015 plan of action.
It set the African Union Commission on the path to creating a quality and accreditation system, which is also intended to give international status to the Pan-African University, or PAU, which is expected to become a nucleus of academic excellence. PAU regional institutes have been established or are in the process of being created in Algeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa.
“The establishment of a continental accreditation agency is necessary as it will guarantee provision of high quality education in the Pan African University and ensure its international recognition,” Njenga told University World News.
But despite robust political will, such an institution might find it hard to achieve its role on the continent. Vested national and regional interests might hamper its functions, and its decisions would be hard to enforce in different countries.
The crux of the matter is that Africa has many disharmonised and fractured education systems in terms of languages of instruction, university entry standards, and academic credit systems, as well as inadequate university leadership and management skills.
Such has been the case in East African Community member countries, where success have been elusive in efforts to establish a unified higher education accreditation body to cover universities in Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
According to Professor Mayunga Nkunya, executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, a challenge has been insufficient financing from partner states to enable the body to develop a regional university quality rating system.
But probably more significantly, the council is not legally anchored in the charter of the East African Community, making it more or less a voluntary body whose decisions were not binding on the five member countries.
This initiative is long overdue. The agency also needs to focus attention on the harmonisation of the curricula used in the higher education institutions. The Pan African University in Addis Ababa has to be involved in such a project and network with its five regional centres, in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Algeria and Cameroon.
Solomon Yirenkyi-Boateng on the University World News Facebook page
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