Quality Enhancement Project – Raising student success

University teaching is one of the few professions in the world for which people need no qualifications, no experience and no knowledge. But that is now changing around the world, according to Professor Diane Grayson, director of institutional audits at South Africa’s Council on Higher Education, or CHE.

In a presentation to the South African Technology Network – SATN – conference last month on the CHE’s Quality Enhancement Project, Grayson said the quality of university teaching was being increasingly perceived as a critical factor in student success in global higher education.

The sector has seen a 53% increase in the number of tertiary students in the period 2000 to 2007 and a strong shift towards student diversity – against the backdrop of a general decline in resources.

Raising the quality of university teaching is one of four key focus areas of the initial phase of the Quality Enhancement Project, or QEP, which was launched in South Africa in February this year with the aim of improving student success in individual universities – defined as the production of greater numbers of graduates with qualities that are ‘personally, professionally and socially valuable’ – and in the sector as a whole.

The QEP effectively replaces the former system introduced in 2004 of individual institutional audits, which took three to five years each – a process which Grayson told University World News was simply “taking too long”, with a few cases still not having been closed off.

“What we have now [in the QEP] is more emphasis on getting the information and doing something with it more quickly,” she said.

Shift from quality assurance to enhancement

The shift from a system of quality assurance to quality enhancement comes in the wake of what the 2012 National Development Plan, or NDP, described as “disturbing” data on the quality of university education.

According to the NDP, South African universities are “mid-level in terms of knowledge production, with low participation, high attrition rates and insufficient capacity to produce the required levels of skills. They are still characterised by historical inequities and distortion”.

At the level of specific data, this translates into a participation rate of only 17% of all 20-24 year olds – only 14% of black Africans in that age bracket – and alarmingly high attrition levels.

CHE figures show that only about one in four students (27%) in contact institutions graduate in the regulation time and that by the end of the regulation time in all three qualification types (three-year and four-year degrees and diplomas) more students have been lost to failure and dropout than have graduated – more than twice as many in the case of African and diploma students.

Grayson assured SATN delegates that the QEP model, although informed by quality enhancement initiatives from the United States and Scotland, was unique to South Africa and adapted to the local context.

“We can learn good practice from any part of the world. If some of the wealthiest and most developed institutions see the need for qualified university teachers, for example, why should we not?”

She said the QEP was committed to taking teaching seriously. “Some universities already recognise and require competent teaching – Fort Hare, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Rhodes, for example… We hope to see every university require a level of pedagogical competence from its academics and reward them accordingly.”

Improving lecturing

Grayson said European institutions are increasingly attuned to the need for professional teacher training at university level.

In the Netherlands, for example, every academic is required to have a university teaching qualification and in Sweden academics are expected to do the equivalent of 400 hours of pedagogical training and be able to demonstrate pedagogical competence in order to secure permanent appointment. Teaching is not seen as an alternative to good research, she said.

Mechanisms that reward good teaching, and the idea of ‘parity of esteem’ for teaching and research, are also gaining traction.

She cited the case of Lund University in Sweden where the faculty of engineering had created a faculty-based pedagogical academy dedicated to evaluating academic teaching performance.

“Once admitted to the academy, a person is an Excellent Teaching Practitioner and receives an additional monthly stipend and his or her department receives extra money for teaching and learning,” said Grayson.

Grayson said the QEP model also took into account the need for staff workloads to be “realistic and consistently applied” and the need for fair conditions of service, particularly with regard to increased numbers of temporary staff.

In South Africa, student numbers had increased by 28% from 2004 to 2012 and permanent academic staff by only 13%, putting greater pressure on lecturers.

According to Grayson, the new enhancement process is inductive, in the sense that findings from the first step will guide the later steps, and iterative, in the sense that there are two phases of two years comprising the same set of steps.

“Some of these steps take place at institutional level and others are nationally coordinated. What they facilitate is a constant flow of information to and from institutions and the sector. At the end of each phase an institution will receive feedback on what they have done well and areas for improvement,” she said.

Partnership not policeman

All universities are involved in the process simultaneously and senior staff – deputy vice-chancellors (academic and teaching and learning) – are co-leaders with CHE.

“We have strategically chosen the DVC as the liaison person because the DVC sits on the executive management committee of the institution and has the requisite authority to ensure the project succeeds and that monitoring is built into the institutional culture,” Grayson told University World News.

Professor Henk de Jager, deputy vice-chancellor – academic and research – at Central University of Technology told University World News that he liked the new system better than the institutional audits.

“The QEP is more like a partnership between us and the CHE – it takes away the feeling that there’s a big policeman sitting at the top and moving in with a team of investigators,” he said.

A key to the continuous improvement anticipated by the process is collaboration, a commitment between institutions to sharing good practices and solving common problems – a concept that Grayson concedes is not a strong component of the current South African higher education landscape.

“Our institutions tend to compete against each other and this is exacerbated by funding models and the fact that we have a relatively small pool of well-prepared students,” she said.

“But each university must be part of a high quality system. It’s not only about individual institutions and there needs to be collaboration between components of the system to make it improve,” she said.

“We have nearly 53 million people and so few institutions. They must all be full,” she said. “South African institutions cannot afford to compete in the area of student success.”

The process

In addition to enhancing academics as teachers, initial areas of focus for the first two-year phase include enhancement of student support and development, enhancement of the learning environment, and enhancement of course and programme enrolment management.

Institutional submissions received by CHE in September are currently being analysed and feedback to the sector will take place at the end of January 2015, according Grayson. This would be followed during the year by collaborative workshops, analysis and feedback, and the submission of institutional reports by the end of November 2015.

In these reports, institutions would have an opportunity to share what steps they had taken to improve performance related to the four focus areas. There would also be the selection of a new set of focus areas. Feedback to individual institutions would follow in early 2016.

Grayson said the process allowed the CHE to function as a coordinator and facilitator of conversations not necessarily initiated by itself.

It is envisaged that the project will lead to benchmarks and codes of good practice for quality undergraduate provision, policy recommendations, tools and resources for improving student success, research on what affects student success and communities of practice – “a general ‘raising of the bar’ in terms of what can be expected to improve student success”, she said.