Working towards a shared vision of higher education

Fears that harmonisation of higher education will involve a rigid standardisation of systems and strip them of autonomy must be addressed if greater progress is to be made towards a common quality assurance framework, according to Goski Alabi, professor of quality management and leadership at the University of Professional Studies in Accra, Ghana.

Speaking at a recent webinar hosted by the AAU and the ADEA Working Group on Higher Education funded by TrustAfrica on the topic of ‘Promoting differentiation, diversification and harmonisation of African education systems’, Alabi said: “It is critical to reduce the fear in some institutions that harmonisation is going to strip them of the autonomy to regulate or control their programmes, curriculum or delivery,” adding that some authorities see it as a rigid standardisation of systems.

Professor Peter A Okebukola, an expert in quality assurance in education systems and the president of the Global University Network for Innovation (GUNI), who chaired the webinar, suggested that there was a need for legal provisions so that institutions could ‘domesticate’ agreed harmonisation and differentiation guidelines within the respective countries.

Alabi said both harmonisation and differentiation were key issues in a context of commodification of higher education and the ability of institutions to set themselves up in almost any country depending on that country’s national regulations.

“What programmes are being offered is something we need to examine at a continental level in relation to accreditation which is still underway,” Alabi said.

She said she was also concerned that Tuning Africa – a collaborative methodology for academics to develop, implement and evaluate competence-based study programmes, level descriptors and new teaching and learning methods in specific subject areas implemented under the Joint Africa-EU Strategy – was not scaled up so as to ensure that more African institutions could benefit.

Alabi suggested the need to examine how technology had changed the delivery of programmes in higher education.

Progress in benchmarking

Webinar participants included vice-chancellors, academics, students, consultants and experts in the diaspora – all of whom shared ideas on progress made in benchmarking educational standards and systems at the institutional, national, regional and continental level.

The idea of a shared vision for the African higher education sector in part dates back to the first African Higher Education Summit held in Senegal – Revitalising Higher Education for Africa’s Future – in 2015, when the promotion of diversification, differentiation and harmonisation of higher education systems at all levels was identified as being able to help create a shared vision for higher education and reposition the sector more favourably.

The African Union has been in the process of promoting quality assurance and the development of a framework for the harmonisation of African higher education programmes through initiatives that include the Pan-African Quality Assurance Framework (PAQAF) since 2013.

PAQAF’s role is to develop a continental qualifications framework, implement the Addis Ababa Convention, develop quality assurance standards and guidelines for the African higher education system as a reference point for national and regional systems, promote the African Quality Rating Mechanism (a tool for institutional assessment), develop the African Credit Accumulation and Transfer System and create a continental register for national quality agencies.

In January 2016, ministers of higher education approved the implementation of PAQAF.

Okebukola said Africa had the ability to consolidate and ensure the quality of higher educational provisions against locally, regionally and internationally agreed upon benchmarks of excellence.


In pursuing institutionally benchmarked educational standards and systems across Africa, it was necessary to accept some diversity in terms of inputs, processes and outputs.

“We are not the same in higher education.” He said this could be seen in differences in institutional missions, visions and strategic goals of universities, not to mention curricula that matched local needs, as well as issues of relevance, gender and socio-economic variables.

He said there was a need to combine quality systems in order to foster synergies for improved performance and efficiency. This included the harmonisation of national quality assurance processes under a regional framework. Africa had 24 quality assurance bodies with commonalities that could be harnessed to improve student mobility, he said.

In order to promote differentiation and harmonisation, it was suggested that institutions needed to stick to their assigned missions, and develop a solid academic core as well as niche areas that were relevant to national requirements and student needs. At the same time they should embrace pedagogies that emphasise participation, creativity, invention, innovative citizenship and new technologies for teaching and learning.

Dr Violet Makuku, project officer for the Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation (HAQAA) initiative at the AAU, said the systematic review of educational programmes to ensure that acceptable standards of education, scholarship and infrastructure are being maintained to satisfy customer expectations should be an ongoing effort in Africa.

She said African institutions had to develop and embrace standards and guidelines as well as benchmarks that should be used to measure, evaluate, assess and monitor all aspects of quality assurance, including accreditation.

She said experts were still mapping and shaping the process to implement quality assurance systems.

The pillars of diversity, differentiation and harmonisation rested on the Addis Convention signed on 12 December 2014 which was not operational because only 16 out of the 54 African countries had ratified the agreement. An informal working group is being established to start preparing for the formal implementation, said Makuku.

The agreement is a revised and updated version of the Arusha Convention of 5 December 1981 on the recognition of studies, certificates, diplomas, degrees and other academic qualifications in higher education in African states.

In the meantime, huge challenges with student mobility and staff transfers still exist and people had lost opportunities by merely moving from one university to another, she said.

“If you are a professor in one university and you go to another, you could be told you are not professorial material until you have published in certain journals,” Makuku said.

Makuku said Tuning Africa, which had been implemented at a continental level, should now be implemented at institutional levels.

“If we don’t have structures, we are going to have major challenges when it comes to institutions on the ground implementing our programmes. Quality assurance bodies must have full support from government, universities and vice-chancellors,” she said.

“When I look at the institutional quality assurance unit, the quality assurance departments are like an atom in physics and like cells in biology. These are the basic units to provide support and to collect information,” said Makuku.