Increasing HE enrolment and implications for quality

Sub-Saharan Africa is under increasing pressure to increase enrolment at higher education institutions as a result of recognition of the sector as being vital to development, rapid growth in young populations in African countries and improved access and success at school levels. But what are the implications of such pressures for quality of teaching and learning?

In a recent lecture at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape on “The Changing Higher Education Landscape in Africa: Its impact on quality”, former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius and former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai said the main driver behind the changing landscape in higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa was increased tertiary student enrolment.

He added that some of the key strategies adopted by African countries to cater for the huge demand for tertiary education included increasing enrolment in existing public higher education institutions and the creation of new ones; the use of open and distance learning; facilitating the creation of local private higher education institutions (with public funding being insufficient to meet the growing pressure for access); and encouraging cross-border higher education.

Quality issues

Mohamedbhai, however, cautioned that the adoption of the above strategies could have a negative impact on the quality of teaching and learning in higher education institutions. He identified the following quality issues:

  • Increasing enrolment in public higher education institutions: This leads to “institutional massification” and results in a significant deterioration of quality if the higher education institutions enrol a far greater number of students than their carrying capacity.

  • The proliferation of private higher education institutions: In most countries, the number of private higher education institutions exceeds public ones. Although private enrolment is still comparatively low, it is rapidly increasing. Generally, with some notable exceptions, the quality of private higher education leaves much to be desired.

  • Expanding cross-border higher education: Cross-border higher education is not yet widespread in Africa and enrolment is still relatively low, but it is increasing rapidly. The most common modes in Africa are: franchising of courses through private organisations; offering courses through open and distance learning; setting up independent institutions with no ‘home’ tertiary institution; and branch campuses. Generally, there is insufficient control over cross-border higher education and most providers operate as for-profit higher education institutions, raising concern about their quality.

  • Shortage of qualified faculty: Increased enrolment without a commensurate increase in faculty is causing a deterioration in the quality of teaching and learning. Heavy teaching loads also leave no time for research and many faculty members do part-time teaching in private institutions after work. Poor salaries make it difficult to attract or retain qualified faculty and existing ones are either about to retire or are heavily into administration. Also, the proportion of staff with PhDs is low. Upgrading them would take many years and the quality of the PhD, acquired simply because of an institutional requirement, might be questionable.

  • Lack of accurate institutional data: Most higher educational institutions do not keep comprehensive and consistent institutional data, yet it is vital for assessing quality. Often, records are kept manually in registers and data from different sections in the same institution do not corroborate. More importantly, it is rarely analysed for policy-making and planning.

  • Corruption: Corruption in higher education is prevalent in both developing and developed countries, although the factors and actors may be different. Corruption occurs at all levels: setting up of institutions, appointment of leaders and faculty, student admissions, examinations, finance, research and publications, etc. With the expanding higher education sector in Africa, corruption is bound to increase and will seriously threaten quality.
Quality assurance

Mohamedbhai recommended that all the above issues be addressed through quality assurance (QA) agencies and identified several QA initiatives at national, regional and continental level and the challenges they are facing.

With regard to national initiatives, he said that in 2015, it was estimated that only about half of Sub-Saharan African countries had a dedicated national QA agency. In several countries, this was undertaken by their respective commission or council for higher education, but in some countries, QA was assured by the ministry responsible for higher education.

Where set up, quality assurance agencies lacked trained staff, capacity for implementing the external evaluation process in higher education institutions and shortage of funds. They rarely used external evaluation for the increasing number of private higher education institutions and had little experience in evaluating open and distance learning and cross-border higher education.

Finally, the fact that most quality assurance agencies operate under a ministry undermines their independence, acceptability and credibility.

There was therefore a need for regional collaboration to overcome these challenges and to share experiences.

Regional collaboration

Mohamedbhai highlighted significant progress made in the promotion of QA systems in the countries of the East African Community, an initiative undertaken by the Inter-University Council for East Africa over 2005-2014, with the support of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). This eventually led to the establishment of the East African Higher Education Quality Assurance Network (EAQAN) in 2012.

In 2013, with its successful experience in East Africa, DAAD launched a similar initiative in West and Central Africa and, in 2017, it was considering supporting quality assurance in the Southern African Development Community region. Also, in 2014 the Southern African Quality Assurance Network (SAQAN) was launched, but limited progress has been made due to lack of funds.

At continental level, the African Quality Assurance Network (AfriQAN) was formally launched and hosted by the Association of African Universities in 2009, with initial support from the World Bank and UNESCO, and with the main objective of capacity building of national QA agencies. However, funding for its sustainability is a major issue.

In 2010, the African Union launched the African Quality Rating Mechanism (AQRM), a tool to facilitate continuous quality improvement in higher education institutions through self-evaluation and external validation. The response from African institutions has been limited and funding for the external validation is a challenge.

Finally, in 2015, a major initiative called Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation (HAQAA) was launched with funding from the European Union and the support of the African Union. The project ends this year. Some progress has been made, but much more remains to be done.

Mohamedbhai added that the higher education landscape in Africa will continue to change over the next couple of decades and one of the main drivers of that change will remain increasing tertiary enrolment, vital for Africa’s development. He stressed, however, that the quality issues arising from increasing enrolment need to be addressed upfront.

He said national QA agencies will have to play a key role in ensuring quality of higher education and they need to network and collaborate at both regional and continental level so as to share experiences and resources to overcome their challenges. They should equally collaborate with QA agencies in countries outside Africa – Europe, the United States, Asia and Latin America – many of which have successfully established effective quality assurance systems.

Dr Patrick Swanzy is a Carnegie Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Institute for Post-School Studies, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. The lecture was the fifth in the African Higher Education Dialogue series of public lectures hosted by the Doctoral Programme in Higher Education Studies, led by Patrício Langa, associate professor at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, and Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique. The series is sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The lecture was adapted from a keynote address that Professor Mohamedbhai delivered at the INQAAHE (International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education) Biennial Forum held in Mauritius in May 2018.