Roles and functions of HE councils in eight countries

Challenges facing higher education agencies in eight African countries have been identified in research by Tracey Bailey, leader of the Roles and Functions of Higher Education Councils and Commissions in Africa Project. Problems include political interference and weaknesses in planning, system-level governance, capacity and data quality.

Bailey presented key findings and policy issues from work undertaken over three years, at an 18-21 November 2014 workshop in Stellenbosch of HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – led by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The study was of councils or commissions in the eight countries HERANA has been working in. Data collection took place in 2012 and 2013, and included more than 50 in-depth interviews with key people within the councils and parent ministries as well as scrutiny of a range of policy documents, strategic plans, annual reports, websites and statistics.

In all, eight councils or commissions were studied:
  • • Botswana Tertiary Education Council.
  • • Ghana National Council for Tertiary Education.
  • • Kenya Commission for Higher Education.
  • • Mauritius Tertiary Education Commission.
  • • Mozambique National Council for Quality Assurance.
  • • South African Council on Higher Education.
  • • Tanzania Commission for Universities.
  • • Uganda National Council for Higher Education.
Eight case study reports have been published, along with two reports on the financing and the legislative frameworks of councils and a comparative synthesis report released late last year.

All the agencies were established in response to the need to regulate, quality assure and coordinate growing and diversifying tertiary sectors. “There was this constant refrain about exponential growth in the tertiary sector, and particularly growth of private institutions."

Common to all countries was the need for the official regulation and certification of all the new institutions and to introduce quality assurance. “The issues of regulation, quality assurance and coordination came through strongly.”


All of the councils were mandated to undertake functions via an act of parliament, said Bailey. In all cases, some functions were partially implemented or not implemented at all, while in some cases agencies had introduced functions that were not part of their mandate. Bailey categorised the functions in order to look at them cohesively.

The first major category was regulation: determining norms and standards, equivalence of qualifications, and credit accumulation and transfer policies and processes; deciding the regulatory framework for accrediting institutions and programmes; registering, licensing and accrediting all institutions; and accrediting academic programmes.

“There was this constant idea that the regulatory activities of councils and commissions focused very much on private institutions – this was part of the rationale for their establishment in the first place,” said Bailey.

But some legislation was changing to include the regulation of public institutions, including ‘flagship’ universities that had always taken care of their own quality assurance and, in cases such as the University of Botswana, had also done so for smaller institutions.

The second group was called ‘distributive’ functions: determining budget allocations for institutions and-or the sector; distributing funding from the state to institutions, units or individuals; and monitoring spending at the institution and sector levels.

Three councils were initially established as funding bodies – in Botswana, Ghana and Mauritius – but other councils also had a distributive role to play.

"There was little commonality between the agencies in terms of the spread of distributive functions undertaken, which suggests this role was shared between the councils or commissions and other government bodies in the system," said Bailey.

The third major function was monitoring: collecting and analysing data, and developing performance indicators; tracking developments and trends in the system, and the performance and quality of institutions; monitoring quality assurance; and communicating problems to government.

Quality assurance, said Bailey, was a “massive role”. All except the agency in Ghana were involved in quality assurance, or were meant to be. “For councils, it was very much about monitoring the quality assurance mechanisms and systems in place in institutions.”

Monitoring sector-level trends and institutional performance, however, did not seem to be in the purview of what councils were expected to do. This was surprising, said Bailey: “I would have imagined that there would be an important role to play in monitoring sector-level trends given the location of councils within the system and their bird’s eye view of the sector.”

Fourth were advisory functions: providing expert and evidence-based advice; commenting on or formulating draft policies for the ministry; and providing advice to government on the licensing and accreditation of institutions and academic programmes.

All of the agencies (except in Mozambique) had an advisory role mandated in their parliamentary act, and this role was strong in Ghana, Mauritius and South Africa.

Interviewees spoke about the advisory role being done proactively and reactively. “But the sense was that mostly it was reactive to specific requests from ministers,” said Bailey.

“There was the idea that councils were in a position to also offer advice proactively based on their monitoring activities and processes in accrediting institutions." A few were playing a role in commenting on draft policies – and in Botswana, the council actually formulated policies on behalf of the ministry.

All of the councils and commissions put a lot of emphasis on the importance of research and evidence underpinning the advice, said Bailey. But only in Mauritius and South Africa was there adequate research capacity within the body or the system.

“So there was recognition of the importance of research-based policy advice but most of the councils were making their way towards that aspiration.”

Fifth was ‘coordination’: enabling interaction and managing relationships between key stakeholders; developing and maintaining agreement – a ‘pact’ – between stakeholders on objectives and issues; promoting sector objectives to the market and government; strategic and financial planning; developing data and knowledge flows; and oversight of the overall governance system.

Although higher education is located in a ministry, the sector straddles other areas of government and keeping all interests coherent and promoting them was important, Bailey pointed out.

Under the three types of coordination functions of commissions, only Botswana, Kenya and Mauritius were undertaking strategic planning “in a fairly limited way. Everyone was playing a role in enabling interaction and managing the relationships between key stakeholders”.

People talked about commissions being ‘buffer’ bodies – protecting institutions from government interference or even the other way around, protecting government from lots of little queries [or demands] from institutions and students. There was also the notion of an intermediary body, providing a bridge or link between stakeholders.

East African councils especially were involved in promoting higher education objectives and priorities, sometimes in quite innovative ways like holding annual exhibitions.

Finally, some councils carried out support functions. For instance, in Mauritius a centre of the Tertiary Education Commission provided IT support and training to the sector. The Tanzania commission had donor-funded capacity building for university leaders and teachers.

While the support functions of commissions were not viewed as part of their governance role, they could be very important – especially if they were not happening elsewhere in the system. But there were concerns about function drift – “Taking capacity, resources, time and energy away from the core functions and roles the councils and commissions are supposed to play.”

Key issues for planners

The study highlighted a number of challenges.

Political interference, autonomy and independence came up in every set of interviews, and to a lesser extent in documents in the public domain, said Bailey.

“The case studies, being thick on description, give quite a lot of detail about respondents’ views on where political interference has become a problem. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, it’s often in the regulatory functions.”

For instance, around licensing new institutions, where an individual or company trying to set up a private university might bypass the council and lobby a political leader, who would phone the head of quality assurance and ask that the new institution be ‘helped’.

“There were reports across the board of that kind of thing happening.”

The research, Bailey told the meeting, also kicked up key policy issues in the areas of planning, governance, capacity building and data.

Planning weaknesses
Every country reviewed had some kind of higher education policy or plan, but “mostly they are broad brushstrokes. What was really striking was the plethora of small institutions with low enrolment numbers".

This was problematic when viewed against the lack of capacity in many commissions, especially regarding institutional accreditation, which required people to visit numerous institutions around the country.

It was important to highlight the absence of detailed national plans that set clear targets and limits to the number and types of tertiary institutions – “in other words, some sort of differentiation plan” – since countries were responding unstrategically to growing market demand and councils were being overwhelmed with work.

Second, in the area of governance there was lack of coordination and system oversight and the need for discussion regarding legislation, roles that needed to be fulfilled, and the development of a ‘pact’ and strategic framework

“In some of the countries – Mauritius, Tanzania and Uganda for example – respondents spoke about either gaps or duplication in the legislation or duplication of different pieces of legislation or problems that left the council somewhat adrift in being able to perform certain functions.”

This tied in to information from the interviews that even at the system level there was very little oversight or coordination in the sense of roles and functions and who was doing what. Given their placement, commissions could play a key role in systemic coordination.

Capacity constraints
Third, there were serious capacity constraints facing councils and commissions, in terms of the number of people to carry out regulatory functions and in lack of skills – particularly for quality assurance, research and data analysis – within the agencies and the sector at large.

This was impacting on the ability to perform certain functions and required prioritisation, strategic planning regarding staff development and recruitment, drawing on expertise in the system and capacity building within agencies.

“There really is a need for councils to identify what kind of expertise they need, and maybe for funders to look at supporting capacity building.”

Lack of data
Finally, said Bailey, there was a lack of accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive data on the higher education sectors.

“The councils complained that the lack of data was impacting on a number of functions, such as policy advice, monitoring and planning. Only four of the countries had national higher education management information systems and only two of those – South Africa and Mauritius – were comprehensive.”

In other countries, Bailey continued, there was recognition of the importance of having a national higher education management information system and there were some plans under way, “but it was really quite a remarkable absence”.

“There also is a need for capacity to be built at the institutional level, and for incentivising or having some kind of leverage mechanism to get institutions to ensure data collection and sharing.”