Harmonisation and tuning: Integrating African higher education

The harmonisation of higher education in Africa is a multidimensional process that promotes the integration of tertiary systems in the region.

The objective is to achieve collaboration across borders, sub-regionally and regionally – in curriculum development, educational standards and quality assurance. The hope is to achieve joint structural convergence and consistency of systems as well as compatibility, recognition and transferability of degrees to facilitate mobility.

The African Union Commission promotes this process for African higher education. The European Commission supports these efforts through the Africa-European Union Strategic Partnership, which includes the Africa-European Union Migration, Mobility and Employment Partnership and the Joint Africa-European Union Strategy Action Plan.

Various initiatives to foster harmonisation have been launched in the past three decades, the most prominent being the Arusha convention (1981) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Education and Training (1997). The convention, which is being revised, will serve as the legal framework for the harmonisation of higher education in Africa.

Tuning: Pioneering initiatives

Tuning is a complex methodology to improve teaching, learning and assessment in higher education reform. It guides the development of curriculum, a credit accumulation mechanism and a transfer system – so as to obtain intended learning outcomes, skills and competences.

One of its objectives is to ensure consensus of academics across borders on a set of reference points for generic and subject-specific competences, alongside subject lines.

Tuning as a tool has been developed in Europe following the Bologna process. And so far, tuning projects have been completed in more than 60 countries around the world including in Europe, Latin America, Russia and the United States. Projects have recently started in Australia, India and China.

More than 1,000 universities, ministries, agencies and other bodies have been involved in such projects. Tuning Africa is part of this larger initiative, to help harmonise and reform higher education in the region.

Tools of integration

The importance of tuning as a tool to implement harmonisation of higher education in Africa was first discussed at a political level. The European Union commissioned a feasibility study in 2010, to explore its potential, relevance and timeliness. Following the study and a broad consultation, the tuning approach has been started in a pilot project.

Unlike many top-down initiatives, the tuning process in Africa began in a dual mode of interaction, combining top-down (first) and bottom-up (later) approaches.

In a validation workshop held in Nairobi in March 2011, five priority areas were identified for the pilot project, including agricultural sciences, civil and mechanical engineering, medicine and teacher education, which will be coordinated across the regions involved.

The pilot project

A call for participation in the “Harmonisation and Tuning African Higher Education” project was launched in October 2011.

In November 2011, a selection workshop was held in Dakar, Senegal, followed by an international conference on “Tuning, Credits, Learning Outcomes and Quality: A contribution to harmonisation and the space for higher education in Africa”.

It was attended by stakeholders including the African Union Commission, European Commission, Association of African Universities, Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Supérieur, Inter-University Council for East Africa, Council on Higher Education (South Africa), African Council for Distance Education, national quality assurance agencies such as the South African Qualifications Authority, and national ministries.

The selection workshop screened 96 applications. As not all short-listed universities were finally selected, further recruitment efforts are being made to reach 60 – the designated number of potential participants for the pilot phase.

Outstanding issues

Ownership, inclusiveness and leadership
Initially the tuning Africa initiative was promoted by the political convictions of regional integration, mobility and harmonisation. At the launch of the initiative, concerns were raised about ownership, inclusiveness, leadership and strategy. As a direct response to these concerns, it was agreed to start the initiative with a feasibility study.

The tuning process needs to involve numerous and diverse stakeholders, such as administrators, ministries, higher education and quality assurance agencies, policy-makers, employers, the public sector, students, regional bodies, intermediary actors and university associations. For this reason, ongoing consultation over a reasonable period of time has been advised.

The initiative is now ushering in a new phase, where the Association of African Universities is identified as the implementing agency under the guidance of the African Union Commission. In this phase, it is expected that the association will engage African universities in a consultative, transparent and effective way by facilitating and ensuring their full leadership and ownership of the dialogue.

Coherence, consistency and dissemination
The prevalent plans contain a plethora of national and regional quality assurance, accreditation, qualification framework, credit accumulation and credit transfer systems, and curricula reforms. These efforts need to be effectively integrated and synchronised, to create coherence and consistency.

Tuning still remains a new lexicon in the African higher education landscape. In the tuning Africa pilot project, only 60 universities are involved; and this comprises a small critical mass of champion universities, along with supporting political and intermediary bodies.

Therefore, an appropriate dissemination strategy to popularise the initiative is imperative.

Implementing harmonisation and tuning requires resources. As most African universities experience chronic financial constraints, the provision of resources must be negotiated by numerous constituencies. The success of the initiative may also be hampered by disparities in institutional infrastructure and the weak human resources bases of many institutions.

Outcome-oriented learning: Issue of viability
The successful implementation of a paradigm shift from input-oriented teaching to outcome-oriented learning – with all its associated implications for competence assessment and quality assurance – remains a key challenge for tuning Africa.

The rapid massification of higher education, meagre and overstretched resources, poor management and leadership, underqualified staff and underprepared students pose a threat to the project's success. Therefore appropriate, contextualised and realistic approaches need to be put in place, for the tuning Africa pilot to succeed.

Distance education has an important role in expanding access to higher education and training in Africa. Thus, the pilot project is pioneering integrating distance education into the mainstream. This component has never been tested in a tuning project, so far.


The tuning higher education in Africa pilot project is expected to be a consultative process that will foster discourse at a grassroots level across borders, through a number of regional seminars and conferences. These will provide the platform of dialogue for quality assurance, improvement of teaching and learning, and assessment.

As the dialogue on credits and a common credit system is one of the central pillars of the tuning approach, the pilot project might also advance the discourse towards an African credit system.

The success of the pilot project will depend on the involvement of a critical mass of universities and stakeholders, sustained resources, and well-organised dissemination as well as transparent and credible leadership.

The direct linkage and integration of the tuning pilot project into existing quality assurance initiatives – including regional and national qualification frameworks – are expected to contribute to sustainable, institutionalised and harmonised reform.

* Karola Hahn is managing director of the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. Damtew Teferra is founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa at Boston College in the United States. Both are members of the steering committee of the Tuning Africa initiative. Opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the steering committee or other organisations mentioned in the article.

* This article was first published in the latest edition of International Higher Education (Number 69, Fall 2012), the publication of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education. It is republished with permission.