Quality regimes in Africa – Reality and aspirations

Since the middle of 2000, a number of initiatives have been launched in Africa to develop common frameworks for comparable and compatible qualifications, to promote academic mobility. Quality and quality assurance play a crucial role in these initiatives.

This article identifies and analyses the various higher education quality regimes and briefly discusses the challenges to implementing quality assurance, as well as the aspirations of African countries identified in recent commissioned research.

It is generally agreed that over the past two decades the quality of higher education has declined in several African countries, mainly due to rapid increase in student enrolments, poor standards of libraries and laboratories, inadequate pedagogic training of academic staff, and limited capacity of quality assurance mechanisms.

Several quality assurance agencies have been established to enhance quality of higher education at the national, sub-regional and continental levels.

National level

The first national quality assurance agency was established in 1962, in Nigeria. By 2012, 21 African countries had established such agencies, and a dozen other countries were at relatively advanced stages in this direction.

Francophone Africa is lagging behind, however, with only five countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with quality assurance agencies.

Such agencies were initially established to ensure the quality of programmes delivered by private institutions through the face-to-face mode. This mandate has gradually been expanded to include public institutions and other modes of delivery.

Sub-regional level

The African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education was established in 1968, with the main objective of harmonising academic programmes and policies related to staff recruitment and promotion in member states.

Since 2005, the council has implemented harmonisation of programmes through a reform that aims to align the degree structure in francophone countries to the three anglophone bachelor, masters and PhD degrees. However, this reform faces some challenges, mainly due to the lack of national quality assurance mechanisms.

The Inter-University Council for East Africa has responsibility for ensuring internationally comparable standards in the five member states of the East African community: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

This mandate is being implemented through the establishment and use of a sub-regional quality assurance framework. The council’s handbook has been developed and used to instruct quality assurance trainers and reviewers who are now instrumental in strengthening the capacity of quality assurance units in member institutions.

Continental level

In 2010-12 the Association of African Universities, or AAU, implemented the Europe-Africa Quality Connect pilot project in collaboration with the European Universities Association. The project has helped to enhance institutional evaluation capacities in five African universities.

The AAU also hosts the African Quality Assurance Network, which implements its main mandate of promoting collaboration among quality assurance agencies through capacity building and the African Quality Assurance Peer Review Mechanism. Currently, the network is facing financial challenges in implementing its activities.

The African Union Commission has three initiatives.

The first initiative, the African Higher Education Harmonisation Strategy, was adopted in 2007 to ensure comparability of qualifications and therefore to facilitate implementation of the ‘revised Arusha’ convention – originally the UNESCO Regional Convention on the Recognition of Studies, Certificates, Diplomas, Degrees and other Academic Qualifications in Higher Education in African States, adopted in 1981 in Arusha, Tanzania.

A conference of African Ministers of Education will be held in March 2014 to adopt and sign the revised Arusha convention.

The revision of the Arusha convention began in 2002. Since 2007 this process, which is not yet completed, has been jointly coordinated by UNESCO and the African Union Commission.

Progress made on the harmonisation strategy and the revision of the Arusha convention has been limited. This may partly be explained by the poor involvement of higher education and quality assurance stakeholders in the initiatives.

Some of the results expected from the harmonisation strategy will not be achieved by 2015, as anticipated by the work plan approved by the Conference of Ministers of Education in 2007.

These include the establishment of an African Regional Qualifications Framework and the development of an African Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, which are key instruments for the implementation of the Arusha convention.

The second African Union Commission initiative, the Tuning Africa pilot project, is anticipated to promote implementation of the harmonisation strategy.

The project was launched in 2011 to contribute to the development of a qualifications framework in five subject areas in collaboration with nearly 60 African universities, the AAU and other higher education partners. The project focuses on intended learning outcomes, skills and competences and efforts are under way to expand its scope.

The third initiative, the African Quality Rating Mechanism, encourages higher education institutions to assess their performance on a voluntary basis against a set of established criteria. This is different from ranking systems. It helps to put African universities in clusters according to prescribed standards.

In 2009-10, 32 higher education institutions from 11 countries participated in the pilot project, undertaken on the basis of self-assessment. A project report produced by the African Union Commission noted some shortcomings and suggested revisiting the survey and implementing another pilot phase prior to scaling up the mechanism to all institutions.

Challenges and aspirations

Today, quality assurance is at the heart of all efforts to revitalise higher education in Africa. These efforts have led to a rapid increase in the number of quality assurance agencies. However, at least 60% of the agencies lack the human capacity needed to implement their mandates effectively.

Since 2006, UNESCO and its partners have organised five international conferences that have helped to train more than 700 experts in several key issues, such as: accreditation at programme and institutional levels; quality assurance of teaching, learning and research; institutional audit and visitation; and use of ICT in quality assurance practices. UNESCO has also developed a guide for training quality-assurance trainers.

The annual conferences have played a positive role in human capacity building, fostering awareness of major actors, the emergence of several agencies, and the promotion of regional cooperation in quality assurance.

Across the continent, the major aspiration is to build an African Higher Education and Research Space. To inform the process of building it, in 2010 the Association for the Development of Education in Africa’s working group on higher education commissioned several studies, including a feasibility study on the establishment of an African Regional Quality Assurance Framework.

The African Union recently launched the process of establishing an African Accreditation Framework. These initiatives, and the Tuning Africa project, will provide a strong basis for the development of the African Regional Qualifications Framework and the credit transfer system.


In the past decade, quality assurance efforts have experienced major developments and progress in Africa. Despite these achievements, there remain major challenges and questions that require further attention and research.

Firstly, the Bologna process was partly built on the implementation of the European convention on mutual recognition of qualifications. What role should the Arusha convention play in the process of establishing an African Higher Education and Research Space?

Secondly, how should the African Higher Education and Research Space harmonisation strategy involve higher education and quality assurance stakeholders to enhance implementation of the Arusha convention?

And finally, what lessons can be learned – for reform in francophone countries – from the experience of anglophone countries in establishing viable mechanisms of quality assurance at the national and sub-regional levels?

* Juma Shabani is director of the UNESCO Office in Bamako, Mali. E-mail: This article, “Quality Regimes in Africa: Reality and aspirations” appears in the current edition of International Higher Education, a publication of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. It is republished with permission.