Students bear the brunt of poor quality assurance systems

The lack of quality assurance systems in some African universities is producing ‘half-baked graduates’ who are not fit for the workplace, according to Violet Makuku, project officer for the Association of African Universities’ Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation or HAQAA Initiative.

Interviewed recently in Accra, Ghana, Makuku said the “non-review and ineffective review of curricula to suit current needs in industry and a failure to design new programmes that suit the current and future trends in industry” are among the reasons why universities are churning out “half-baked graduates”.

“In some cases, institutions continue to use equipment that is obsolete and by the time students look for jobs, they cannot use contemporary equipment and software they find there,” she told University World News.

The Secretary-General of the Association of African Universities or AAU, Etienne Ehile, recently lashed out at African universities for turning out underprepared graduates. Makuku said she agreed with his assessment, adding, “It’s true for some who enrol in institutions that are not accredited and whose standards in everything do not meet the minimum requirements.”

She said another problem that some graduates faced was the non-teaching of soft skills such as teamwork, creativity, innovativeness, respect, tolerance, hard work, integrity – which are what industry requires in order to move forward.

Industry-academia links

Makuku also pointed to weak links between universities and industry.

“The non-existence of strong university-industry linkages and partnerships through advisory board members who assist in including in curricula what industry is looking for, has led to heaps of research by universities being underutilised. A symbiotic relationship would help institutions to get equipment and financial support to conduct research beneficial to industry.”

She said the absence of strong university-industry linkages had also seen students struggling to secure internships, attachments or workplace placements which assist with learning.

She said while most universities are now offering university-wide courses on entrepreneurship, there needs to be greater emphasis on ensuring that the content is relevant, practical and regularly updated to ensure students have practical skills that they can apply in the workplace.

A positive development was the opening of business incubation centres in some institutions such as the Ghanaian University of Cape Coast, she said, where students were exposed to the realities of what works and what doesn’t.

Of concern, however, was a widespread lack of quality assurance systems. Makuku said university managers needed to buy into the idea of quality assurance because it is a requirement of the national accreditation boards.

“Some university communities do not really understand the notion of quality assurance; some do not know it at all, some partly understand it and some have impeding misconceptions about quality assurance which are highly damaging and retrogressive to African higher education,” she said.

“They know of policing but they do not know of staff development, efficiency and effectiveness in communication and documentation, for example. They overlook the fact that decision-making should always be informed by real research results into a problem in order to identify root causes so that they do not treat symptoms but that they eradicate the root causes,” she said.

More than simply policing

She said in many cases quality assurance was equated with the lecturer being subjected to all sorts of assessment by management, students and fellow lecturers. “This is where the notion of policing then originates from,” she said.

According to Makuku, real quality assurance should be all-encompassing and should be applied to the whole institution, including governance, finance, library, ICT, registry, staff recruitment, student enrolment, examinations, works/maintenance and services, student and staff support (medical services, catering and accommodation). This is how a quality institutional culture is developed, where everyone participates and is accountable for their actions.

Unfortunately, some quality assurance units exist but lack the confidence to do their job, which is to identify weaknesses and plug them as soon as possible, she said.

“Some are incapacitated because all the personnel in the departments do not have professional quality assurance qualifications, they do not attend workshops on quality assurance and rely on piecemeal information to run the department,” she said.

Makuku said her approach to quality assurance in the AAU was informed by her earlier experiences in universities where she observed that quality assurance personnel were not properly trained.

Ignorance about quality assurance

Workshops on quality assurance facilitated by the Association of African Universities, which had produced overwhelmingly positive results, had also revealed high levels of ignorance about the value and purpose of quality assurance systems in universities and perceptions that quality assurance was a significant expense for institutions, according to Makuku.

“Of concern was the revelation of the high level of ignorance regarding quality assurance matters in the higher institutions of learning where quality assurance is treated as a separate entity, when it should be embedded in all the work that people do,” she said.

“The belief that quality assurance was expensive was another prevalent notion, yet quality assurance is not always about money but changing the way people normally do their work for the better and having the right attitude towards work and whatever the university community does,” she said.

The workshops had highlighted the way in which governments, through the national quality assurance agencies, national accreditation bodies and national councils for tertiary education, could enforce adherence to the professional teaching qualification.

“This can help a lot to improve on lecture delivery for effective teaching and reduce academic dishonesty that is on the increase in teacher-centred lectures,” Makuku said.

Private universities

She said the calibre of some private universities was still a cause for concern.

“I don’t want to paint all private universities with the same brush but some of them are only for making money. They are business enterprises which are not genuinely serving African Higher Education.”

Makuku added that some are owned by key political figures who threaten accreditation bodies and take short cuts to everything, while some are owned by influential individuals who still consider themselves above the law and establish their institutions before they are even accredited.

“Some also employ a lot of part-timers and lower level qualified personnel to save money since they pay them less than professors and doctors. Worse still, some students enrol in such institutions without checking their accreditation status and only become aware of the reality when they cannot be offered jobs because employers check and find out that the institution in question is not accredited.”

To address the problem, Makuku said, the rule of law should apply to everybody, including people in government.

“African governments need to root out corruption which causes non-compliance first. … African governments should clean up their own act first in order to discourage such forms of corruption that affect the quality of African higher education.

“There should be laws and bylaws which are backed by real enforcement so that institutions follow the right procedures for establishment and existence with minimum acceptable standards.”