Standards and guidelines – A step towards harmonisation
An online consultation process was expected to go live last week on Friday, 23 June.
The guidelines – available in English, French, Portuguese and Arabic – are a key outcome of the Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation – or HAQAA – project and are the direct product of a working group made up of quality assurance experts representative of the major regions in Africa.
Elizabeth Colucci, HAQAA project coordinator for the University of Barcelona and also adviser to the European University Association, said the launch of the African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance, or ASG-QA, at the AAU conference was intended to be the start of a continent-wide consultation process among African universities and other higher education stakeholders that would culminate in the presentation of the guidelines to the African Union in the first quarter of 2018.
Colucci described the guidelines as a non-prescriptive “umbrella” document which outlined the expectations and the principles – such as autonomy, transparency, accountability, etc – that participants believe should guide assurance and accreditation systems in Africa. It was an important supporting document that would help universities either improve existing systems or develop effective quality assurance mechanisms for the first time, she said.
“All African systems are different and are at various stages of development with regard to their quality assurance and accreditation systems, and this document acknowledges and accommodates those differences,” Colucci told University World News on the sidelines of the AAU conference.
The African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance aim to set the lower bar for those that agree to adopt them but they leave sufficient space for individual variation as required by cultural, historical or academic differences. According to Colucci, the guidelines apply to both national quality assurance and accreditation systems as well as institutional assessment systems, as both were “mutually reinforcing.”
“The first line of responsibility for quality assurance is universities and this is stated in the document. We encourage institutions not to wait for external or national evaluations,” she said.
The HAQAA initiative, funded by the European Union in partnership with the African Union, was officially launched in Namibia to support the development of a harmonised quality assurance and accreditation system at institutional, national, regional and Pan-African continental level. It started running in January 2016 and will run until the end of 2018, when it may be renewed.
Colucci described HAQAA as a “sister initiative” to the Tuning project and both are supported by the European Union and the African Union under the umbrella of the EU-Africa strategic partnership.
The HAQAA initiative is currently being implemented by a consortium consisting of the University of Barcelona (coordinator), the Association of African Universities, the European University Association, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education and the German Academic Exchange Service, also known as DAAD, which has played a significant role in capacity building among senior quality assurance leaders and managers.
The new guidelines tap into lessons learned from the process guiding the adoption in 2005 by European ministers of education of the European Standards and Guidelines. Like those of its European counterpart, the ASG-QA build upon a matrix of exiting standards that have been developed by both regional organisations and by national quality assurance bodies.
“The overall reference document draws from all regional initiatives. The point is for the regional harmonisation initiatives to articulate with the continental system and for the guidelines to boost their own endeavours,” said Colucci.
According to Colucci, African governments are increasingly putting quality assurance on national agendas as it is recognised as a means to enhance and guarantee educational quality.
“In its broader application, quality assurance and accreditation has a strong role in raising the quality of entire systems and improving aspects of higher education such as international recognition, employability of graduates … A centralised quality assurance system can facilitate this,” she said.
Perhaps predictably, Colucci said the main challenge of the HAQAA initiative has been the scale of the project.
“Working at a continental level is a challenge because of the significant differences between countries and regions. For example, in East Africa we have a political commitment to harmonisation in the East African Community through the Inter-University Council for East Africa or IUCEA. But in central Africa processes are yet to get underway. Regions work at different speeds but our system allows us to work with all of them. The added challenge is promoting added value in what is already a very busy landscape,” she said.
At the moment, the emphasis is on raising awareness of the HAQAA initiative and securing as much buy-in as possible, she said.
“Generally, spreading the word and raising awareness around the process is a central goal. A politically-endorsed document is a starting point but implementation is a long process. In Europe, the Bologna credit transfer system is a success and is actually one of the most well-used tools of that harmonisation process. So there are precedents.”
Endorsing Colucci’s opinion on the need for buy-in, Dr Jeffy Mukora, director at the National Council for Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Mozambique and part of the Technical Working Group to develope the ASG-QA, told an AAU plenary session on quality assurance that harmonisation was “a complex initiative that required time, adequate resources, strong political will, academic co-operation and perseverance” if it was to be successful.
“It also needs buy-in from students, academics, higher education leaders and employers,” he said.
Mukora said networking with other quality assurance representatives from the continent had been an important spin-off of his participation in the standards and guidelines process and had changed his thinking about quality assurance in Africa as a tool to improve quality.
Following a similar line, Dr Rispa Odongo, chair of the technical working group to develop standards and guidelines, told the conference plenary session that “Africa’s leadership has to own this process”.
Odongo said the African Standards and Guidelines were not prescriptive but provided a roadmap for quality attainment in higher education institutions and quality assurance bodies.
Odongo described the standards and guidelines as being “broad enough to allow for diversity”, while still “safeguarding comparability”.