While the potential of regional cooperation to develop and strengthen Africa’s higher education sector has long been recognised on paper, progress towards its actualisation has been slow. Against this backdrop, the introduction next year of a Southern Africa masters curriculum in climate change and development represents an important test case for future academic harmonisation.
Decades after the drafting of the 1981 Arusha Convention, which sought to promote academic mobility and international and regional cooperation through the recognition of higher educational academic qualifications across Africa, instances of regional collaboration have been both sporadic and uneven.
Political complications aside, the challenges facing regional integration and higher education harmonisation are both real and complex.
Comprising 15 countries which are home to 277 million people (25% of Africa’s population), the Southern African region is incredibly diverse, comprising over 100 public universities, over 500 technical universities or colleges and a rapidly-growing private university sector. The region has three major languages of university instruction: English, Portuguese and French, each linked to a unique colonial history.
The region is also characterised by uneven integration of national economies into global markets. Within the higher education sector itself there has been poor use of information and communications technology, exacerbating the knowledge divide in universities. A further challenge is the lack of awareness among institutions of the SADC – Southern African Development Community – Protocol on Education and Training, and a shortage of strategies and funding to operationalise the collaboration envisaged.
Debate and engagement
As a result of this complex terrain, and the paucity of knowledge and data on higher education systems in the region, the approach of the Southern African Regional Universities Association, or SARUA, over the years has focused on research to build on-the-ground information about member states and their readiness for regionalisation – in part through our Leadership Dialogue Series.
The emphasis has been on encouraging debate and engagement and providing the information needed for those engagements, rather than offering definitive answers or proposals.
More recently, however, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of regional harmonisation of higher education, which is partly evident in a number of fairly recent initiatives on the continent.
In what ranks as an African success story, earlier this year, ministers of education in East Africa agreed on a draft declaration for implementation of a harmonised higher education system for the East African Community. From next year students will be able to transfer credits to higher education institutions in five partner states.
In Southern Africa, progress has been made under the SADC Protocol on Education and Training towards the development of a regional qualifications framework – a prerequisite to student and staff mobility, credit transfer, and general access to higher education. The establishment of the Southern African Quality Assurance Network is also an important step towards a process of multi-country collaboration, capacity development, standardisation and networking in the region.
Another Africa-wide programme is the Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation, or HAQAA, initiative established with funds from the European Union and launched in Namibia last month.
Sharing of data
Working in partnership with the African Union, this four-phase initiative aims to support the development of a harmonised quality assurance and accreditation system at institutional, national, regional and continental level. SARUA is working closely with the initiative and has shared its regional research and data.
As part of its first phase, HAQAA is to hold the first of two training courses in the remaining months of 2016 aimed at developing a common understanding of quality assurance in Africa. The HAQAA initiative envisages that by the end of 2018, the continent will have in place African standards and guidelines for quality assurance that will serve as a guiding document for quality assurance agencies and institutions across the continent.
Why the growing interest in harmonisation? As the link between higher education and human and economic development has become clearer, so has an understanding of the capacity of harmonisation to expand the higher education sector and build quality across the region – in everyone’s interest.
Masters degree curriculum
Against this backdrop, SARUA, with support from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, has been spearheading the development of a regional masters degree curriculum in climate change and sustainable development, which is due to be rolled out next year.
While the curriculum initiative capitalises on the growing awareness around the need for harmonisation, it also addresses two stark realities.
The first is the fact that Africa is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as a result of a range of stressors related to poverty and other development issues, and faces huge financial challenges in adapting to climate change.
The second is the reality of climate change as a trans-border phenomenon which requires a collective response from the region’s leadership and its higher education institutions. Our research showed that there were very few programmes in the region specifically focused on both climate change and sustainable development and that there is an urgent need to build knowledge of climate change and development from academic and applied perspectives.
To address the gap in regional data concerning climate change curricula at higher education institutions, SARUA conducted a 12-country mapping study from December 2012 to January 2014. The first of its kind in Southern Africa, the study provided insight into the challenges facing Southern African universities and countries as they confront the impacts of climate change.
As expected, we found considerable diversity within the region with each country having different national accreditation and benchmark systems, as well as different quality frameworks and quality assurance systems. Masters courses in particular vary in the number of modules, and in credit allocations, as well as in what constitutes a credit.
In order to address the lack of harmonisation, the SARUA curriculum was designed to be modular. In this way it is as flexible as possible, giving member institutions leeway to adapt it as they see fit.
For example, the curriculum can be delivered either as a self-standing masters level course or as part of an existing course. The research project component can vary from 33% to 50% of the total credits which are based around the notional hour. Furthermore, each university can decide on the type of degree to issue – MSc, MA or MPhil – depending on the way it is customised and the structure and assessment criteria of the research project.
Although the curriculum has been developed in English, with some materials translated into French and Portuguese, further translation of the curriculum can be taken up by individual universities delivering the curriculum. All modules have teaching and learning assessment plans and resource spreadsheets which will be translated into French and Portuguese.
Furthermore, an online publishing platform will make the curriculum available on an open access basis for any registered users to adapt and use.
There are still challenges to be met before a jointly offered masters degree. For example, there is a need to develop a system to track how the curriculum is used and applied. There is also a need for an easy credit transfer system to allow for student and lecturer mobility in the region. And the issue of co-badging remains: which institution issues the degree in a joint programme and which countries will recognise the degree’s standing?
But we have made a start and are confident in the quality of the curriculum which has been the product of wide consultation with experts. Given the current absence of formalised harmonisation systems, we believe the curriculum will help to strengthen local systems and frameworks needed to facilitate regional coordination, and serve as a precedent for shared programmes and future harmonisation efforts.
Piyushi Kotecha is CEO of the Southern African Regional Universities Association. This article forms part of a series of articles on a regional higher educational response to climate change. Another article in the series can be accessed through this link.
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