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Harmonisation of higher education speeds up

Delegates attending the African Higher Education Summit held in Dakar, Senegal, agreed to promote harmonisation of the continent’s higher education systems through accreditation and mutual recognition of degrees, diplomas and certificates.

According to Dr Beatrice Njenga, head of the education division at the African Union Commission, the continental strategy for harmonisation has been adopted by all African countries and the roadmap for curriculum development is underway.

In an interview with University World News, Njenga noted that the African Union was also keen to strengthen intra-African academic mobility and collaboration as a key initiative towards harmonisation. “We need to link together, in order to realise the potential of higher education as the most important tool for human empowerment,” she said.

According to the Draft Declaration and Action Plan of the 1st African Higher Education Summit on Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future, issued at the end of the gathering on 12 March, the summit agreed to develop criteria for categorising tertiary institutions in accordance with internationally recognised benchmarks of excellence.

The declaration

The declaration says the African Union and sub-regional groupings should “show interest” in the differentiation and diversification of the continent’s higher education as this would help to encourage pan-African student mobility and provide the basis for making comparisons among higher education institutions in Africa. In particular:

  • a. The AU and sub-regional groups should consider providing guidelines for a harmonised classification of tertiary institutions. This would help to enhance student mobility between ‘equivalent’ institutions. “This will be in accord with current efforts at harmonising credentials and setting up continent-wide and sub-regional quality assurance mechanisms.”
  • b. In recent years there have been continent-wide efforts to support higher education in the areas of graduate training and quality assurance. The AU, for example, led the creation of the Pan African University and its centres of excellence in Africa’s five regions, which should help to strengthen existing or create new research universities.
  • c. “A continental agency needs to be tasked with refining and systematising academic data definitions, collection, monitoring and measurement” of all key aspects of higher education. This would allow for meaningful inter-institutional, regional and international comparisons including ranking mechanisms that might stimulate competition for institutional excellence.
  • d. African governments should facilitate the mobility of students and scholars by minimising visa requirements or making the issuing of visas much easier.

Harmonisation advantageous but elusive

Outlining reasons for hanging together Dr Sushita Gokool-Ramdoo, acting head of distance education and open learning in Mauritius, said harmonisation would enable consolidation of Africa’s current disparate universities and other institutions of higher learning.

“In a harmonised higher education system, there will be transparency in curriculum development and understanding of learning load, the duration of courses, credit accumulation and recognition of experiential learning,” said Gokool-Ramdoo in a policy brief for the summit.

While harmonisation seems to be urgently needed and acted upon now, the process has been elusive for Africa so far.

In 1981, UNESCO drew up the Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees and other Academic Qualifications in Higher Education in African States, popularly known as the Arusha Convention.

But the spirit of the convention remained elusive until 2007, when the African Union developed a strategy for the continental harmonisation of higher education.

The process has now gained new impetus, with a new version of the Arusha Convention agreed late last year, and according to Gokool-Ramdoo a roadmap for regional harmonisation efforts has been developed.

“In the next 12 months, regional high-level meetings will be held to promote understanding and advocacy of the Arusha Convention,” said Gokool-Ramdoo.

According to the policy brief, “Harmonisation of Higher Education in Africa or Why We Need to Hang Together”, countries will be required to develop standardised national qualifications frameworks that will be used to facilitate qualifications transfers across Africa.

In addition, countries will be required to establish credit accumulation and transfer systems that will be embedded in regional universities. To hasten the process, the summit urged countries without commissions of higher education to establish them without further delay.

The summit highlighted progress made in East Africa, where five countries – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – through the Inter-University Council of East Africa, have established a regional accreditation and quality assurance system.

It also noted the push made by the Higher Education Quality Assurance Management Initiative for Southern Africa, which has been helping to establish commissions for higher education in countries where such bodies do not exist in the region.

While these new actions are in the pipeline, summit documents reminded delegates that harmonisation is not new to Africa.

According to Gokool-Ramdoo, during the colonial period and immediately post-colonially, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda had a joint secondary education curriculum, under the auspices of the East African National Examinations Council.

The University of East Africa served the whole region’s higher education needs. “The various colleges of the regional university were located in the then three partner states, each specialising in specific disciplines,” said Gokool-Ramdoo.

An African higher education area

But inspired by the Bologna Process – the initiative to create the European Higher Education Area – as well as the development of the European Credit Transfer System, Africa seems ready to establish its own higher education and research area.

Taking into account that harmonisation of higher education in Africa has become a priority, Professor Etienne Ehouan Ehile, secretary-general of the Association of African Universities, urged all governments to establish credible national higher education quality and accrediting bodies with wide powers to sanction institutions for non-compliance.

Such bodies should also have the mandate to develop clear criteria for moving from one type of institution to another, in order to discourage mission creep and academic drift.

While highlighting the importance of harmonisation, Ehile also observed that regional harmonisation bodies should establish ground rules and regulations for the conduct of academic activities that include course delivery, assessment, supervision and examinations.

“There should be specific guidelines on staff qualifications, appointments and promotions, as well as criteria for student admissions to specific degree programmes,” said Ehile.

Several speakers at the summit urged every university to establish a specific mission and avoid duplication of programmes offered by other universities.

Professor Crispus Kiamba, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Nairobi, noted that duplication of degree programmes seemed to have lowered quality in Kenya. He told University World News of examples where universities launched degree courses without adequate staff or even appropriate physical facilities.

Despite such hiccups, delegates were upbeat and keen to encourage governments to move faster towards supporting harmonisation.

But the hasty way in which harmonisation of higher education in Africa is being dusted off, three decades after UNESCO drafted the Arusha Convention, is a reminder of how globalisation has started impacting on the African university within the global knowledge economy.
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