EAST AFRICA: Proposed regional accreditation stalled

Higher education ministers in the East African Community's five member states have rejected a new university accreditation system in the region, dealing a blow to plans to achieve harmonisation and standardisation.

The ministers argued that the proposed overall body would interfere with countries' sovereignty and would also replicate regulatory authorities already set up by individual nations.

Such bodies, like Kenya's Commission for Higher Education, or CHE, are by law the only institutions charged with checking the operations of the sector on issues such as quality and setting up of universities.

As previously reported, the states of the East African Community, or EAC, plan to achieve a unified, regional higher education system, potentially boosting student access and mobility.

Such plans would see the region's existing Inter-University Council, transformed into a single, regional accreditation body. A core function of the planned body would be to grant accreditation for universities and colleges in all five EAC member states - Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

It is this that has prompted the controversy, with concerns expressed over replication of existing bodies and threats to sovereignty.

Reforms such as those contained in the Inter-University Council of East Africa Bill, which was recently published and introduced to the region's legislative assembly, would among others things make it easier for investors to start institutions of higher learning in the region.

The regional approach would allow owners of universities to hire one vice-chancellor to run an institution that has branches in all five EAC countries - instead of the current system whereby each branch is run separately.

For students the regional approach would mean, for example, a Kenyan student enrolling at the University of Nairobi for a degree could graduate from the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

But the improvements will require major changes to individual countries' education systems, some of which the countries now seem uncomfortable with.

"The feeling is that the bill would bring in two parallel systems for accreditation and would impinge on the principles of sovereignty as provided for in the EAC Treaty," said a statement issued by the ministers who met in Arusha, Tanzania, recently.

As a way forward, the ministers want the accreditation proposal discussed again and recommendations regarding protection of sovereignty agreed on and adopted by all.

In July last year the EAC countries set in motion an integration process that saw them sign a Common Market Protocol to allow free access for labour and goods across the region. The integration process is expected ultimately to encourage the nations to adopt regional institutions across sectors.

University education in East Africa has grown rapidly in the past 20 years but challenges related to human capacity, funding, and standards and mechanisms for regulating e-learning and cross-border education have affected quality.

The planned reforms and controversy come at a time when the higher education sectors in the EAC are facing a credibility crisis, with the quality of learning said to be crumbling.