Quality assurance – Guidelines for the ‘quiet revolution’

African universities have been urged to adopt and implement the newly-developed African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ASG-QA) as part of a pan-continental move to improve higher education quality.

Speaking to University World News on the sidelines of last month’s HAQAA (Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation) Initiative workshop held in Cairo, Egypt, Violet Makuku, quality assurance specialist and the HAQAA Initiative project officer at the Ghana-based Association of African Universities, said: "I want the African higher education community to know that all key areas are being harmonised at continental level including transport and trade, passports, visas, etc. So this is not peculiar to higher education … We need to move at a fast but sure pace.”

"I'm urging all African universities to take the ASG-QA on board and implement them in order to improve the quality of African higher education," Makuku said.

Last month’s workshop, hosted by the Egyptian National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Education (NAQAAE), aimed to discuss challenges and opportunities presented by the standards and guidelines.

The latest version of the standards and guidelines are the product of a technical working group of experts from five African regions. The document was also subject to a series of consultations of major African associations, quality assurance and other governing bodies, student organisations and other key stakeholders.

The April 2018 draft review methodology was also launched. It is intended to be a practical tool for all parties and support quality assurance agencies in aligning with the African continental needs in quality assurance.

ASG-QA is a key part of the HAQAA Initiative that has been established to support the development of a harmonised quality assurance and accreditation system at institutional, national, regional and Pan-African continental level.

The ASG-QA will be a key reference tool of the Pan-African Quality Assurance and Accreditation Framework (PAQAF), which has been endorsed by the African Union.

“The implementation of the guidelines will enable African countries to promote academic programmes and qualifications that will be easily recognised around the world," according to Juma Shabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa.

European model

"The ASG-QA that mainly builds on the European model aims at providing African countries with the necessary mechanisms for the development of quality assurance systems that are compatible with the minimum standards applied in Europe and other regions of the world,” Shabani said.

The challenges of implementing a continent-wide system are considerable.

Douglas Blackstock, chief executive of the UK's Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), told University World News there was a "real need" for all parties involved in the HAQAA project to ensure effective management, delivery and evaluation of activity. “These laudable priorities might flounder if the momentum and clear vision is lost,” Blackstock said.

"With 54 African countries involved in the HAQAA initiative, there are big differences in circumstances and priorities for the respective higher education sectors – and that’s before you consider regional contexts."

Asked about the challenges expected to face the implementation of ASG-QA, Makuku said there may be “... operational challenges relating to dissemination of the guidelines to the higher education communities in different African countries and their integration with [the systems] institutions already have. However, with education and awareness, this challenge can be minimised".

"Interpretation of the document by various stakeholders could be another challenge since it may be interpreted differently by various stakeholders. However, there is a glossary which will help reduce the gap in this regard," she said.

Jamil Salmi, a leading global tertiary education expert and former World Bank tertiary education coordinator, told University World News that many African universities were struggling to adapt the Bologna degree structure (LMD or bachelor, masters, doctorate) to their reality.

Differing contexts

"Some universities in Africa operate in economic and political contexts that affect universities in an adverse way. Public funding is insufficient, corruption is rife, and political struggles play out in the universities, preventing academics and students from concentrating on the core missions of teaching, learning and research," Salmi pointed out.

However, despite such challenges, he said quality assurance was taking root in Africa and growing.

"Considering the difficulty faced by governments and university leaders to implement meaningful reforms in the governance and financing of African universities, it is remarkable that quality assurance has progressed so rapidly and widely in Africa."

Currently, 28 out of 54 countries in Africa have established a national quality assurance agency (QAA) and 13 countries are in the process of establishing QAAs, according to a November 2017 presentation by the chair of the ASG-QA Technical Working Group, Dr Rispa Odongo.

"This is why I call it the ‘quiet revolution of quality assurance’, referring to the fact that most stakeholders in higher education have rallied around the importance of quality assurance in support of better quality and relevance," Salmi said.

Keys to quality

Asked about what is missing in Africa that must be fulfilled to raise university education quality, Doris Herrmann, managing director of the German Agency for Quality Assurance through Accreditation of Study Programmes (AQAS), told University World News that better funding for laboratories and libraries and international exchange of staff and students was crucial.

She said staff training in modern teaching methods was also important.

"The students need to take an active role in the learning process. Up until now there has been too much ‘ex cathedra’ teaching to allow students to develop as participants in the process,” she said.

Herrmann also said the academic profession was unattractive for talented students, but well qualified and motivated people were essential to train the next generation.

"Teacher education has to be improved; the teaching level at schools has to be improved and better educated school leavers should enter universities," she said.

Hermann said learning outcomes tended to differ between African countries and institutions. “In several higher education institutions there is still a need to sharpen the profile of the programmes and to define the intended learning outcomes more clearly,” she said.

Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, senior advisor for international affairs at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in the United States, said: "What seems to be lacking is the provision of greater autonomy to universities while making them accountable to society, developing effective internal quality assurance mechanisms at institutional level which can help graduates integrate better into the labour market."

"One of the great challenges, in addition, is academic corruption in all its manifestations: plagiarism, bribery, fake degrees, cheating, fraud, etc," said Uvalic-Trumbic, who is former chief of the higher education section at UNESCO in France.

"Quality assurance agencies should play a greater role in overseeing these challenges but should also interact with other stakeholders, including the government, higher education institutions, media, employers ... because they cannot do it alone,” Uvalic-Trumbic said.