SOUTH AFRICA: New qualifications framework

A higher education qualifications framework will come into force in South Africa next January, strengthening a quality assurance system that has been operating for four years and laying the foundation for credit accumulation and transfer. All public and private institutions will have to register and restructure their programmes. But not everybody is happy about the workload the new policy demands and the fact it will eliminate some qualifications, including the core degree - the bachelor of technology - offered by 'applied' universities.

Quality assurance in South Africa is the responsibility of the statutory advisory body, the Council on Higher Education. Its Higher Education Quality Committee, or HEQC, conducts audits of universities - there have been 20 so far - based on self-evaluation by institutions of their performance against a range of criteria, and external peer assessment. The HEQC also accredits courses and does national reviews, quality promotion and capacity development.

Now the council has been given responsibility for generating and setting standards, and implementing the new higher education qualifications framework, which will determine the types, characteristics and purposes of all qualifications. The policy also defines how higher education qualifications fit into the National Qualifications Framework or NQF, which covers all levels of education and registers all qualifications.

Three quality and qualifications-related bills will pass through parliament this year to enable the new system and bring current laws in line with it, including the National Qualifications Framework Bill 2008. A call for comments on the three bills was gazetted in February.

A qualifications framework for South Africa's previously fragmented but now single coordinated higher education system was first proposed in a 1997 education white paper, and finally gazetted last October. "It has taken some time," Minister of Education Naledi Pandor admitted in the introduction to the policy.

Separate qualifications structures for universities and former polytechnics (now universities of technology) hindered the articulation of programmes and the transfer of students between courses and institutions. According to Pandor, the framework will improve the coherence and flexibility of the system, and integrate and facilitate articulation and credit transfer.

Also, Pandor wrote, public confidence in university standards required public understanding of achievements represented by their qualifications: "The qualifications framework is thus designed to be readily understood and to ensure a consistent use of qualification titles and their designators and qualifiers."

She stressed that within the common parameters and criteria of qualifications under the new system, diversity and innovation would be encouraged: "Higher education institutions will have ample scope to design educational offerings to realise their different visions, missions and plans, and to meet the varying needs of the clients and communities they serve."

The framework sets minimum admissions requirements for all programmes, but leaves it up to universities to set their own admissions policies beyond those minimums. It allows recognition of prior learning and work integrated learning.

Qualifications are structured in credits. For instance, there are 120 credits for the first year of a bachelor degree, with each credit representing 10 notional study hours. Credits can straddle different levels of the National Qualifications Framework - levels five to seven cover undergraduate and eight to 10 postgraduate qualifications - depending on what is appropriate for the qualification, as decided by the university.

The framework takes a 'nested approach' to qualifications design, moving from generic to specific outcomes. At each level of the framework are 'level descriptors' that describe generic learning achievements against which more specific outcomes can be developed and compared. The most specific standards are found in programmes and they always meet the generic level standards in which they are 'nested'. This approach, the government believes, can minimise the volume of national standards-setting required for higher education.

From 1 January 2009, all new higher education programmes will have to comply with the framework, be registered on it and accredited by the HEQC or the Department of Education. There will be a transitional period for existing programmes to be restructured to achieve full compliance with the framework. The date for full compliance will be gazetted by the Education Minister and during this year, institutions will be provided with timelines and guidelines regarding transitional arrangements and alignment of qualifications.

The framework will lay the foundation for a credit accumulation and transfer system to be developed fully in the coming years. Meanwhile, a maximum of 50% of credits achieved towards one qualification may be transferred to another qualification (but cannot constitute more than 50% of the latter).

The Department of Education is working with the council and higher education community to discuss all aspects of the framework and its implications for universities. But already there are rumblings of discontent.

Universities of technology, said one source who did not want to be named, were "not happy" about phasing out the bachelor of technology (BTech) degree. One reason it is being scrapped is because of articulation difficulties between formative degrees and the BTech, which generally comprises three years of higher diploma-level study with a fourth more conceptual year tacked on to achieve a degree.

"Another worry for everyone is the amount of work that has to be done to implement the framework, and there are other concerns over broad policy issues," said the source.

Higher Education Qualifications Framework