Towards a diversified system of quality assurance

The establishment of quality assurance agencies in many parts of the world is viewed as a means of addressing the attendant challenges of ‘massifying’ systems of higher education. However, the last few decades reveal that addressing the issue of quality requires more than setting up national agencies since the continued growth and complexity of an expanding higher education system can overwhelm and eventually render a fledgling system ineffective.

The Ethiopian Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) was formally inaugurated as a sector wide agency in 2003 – coinciding with the onset of the aggressive expansion drive in the higher education sector. Its establishment was primarily driven by the increasing expansion of the public sector and the mushrooming of private higher education institutions.

Set up as a semi-autonomous agency accountable to the Ministry of Education, HERQA was given the responsibilities of a national quality watchdog, with specific mandates for granting accreditation to private higher education institutions, conducting external quality audits on both public and private higher education institutions, offering equivalence of foreign credentials, and facilitating the development of internal quality assurance systems of higher education institutions.

HERQA has accomplished a variety of tasks since its inception. In addition to promoting the concepts of quality across the sector, it has been instrumental in the deployment of various guidelines and procedures that respond to its accreditation, quality audit and benchmarking processes.

HERQA’s direct influence in terms of offering quality-related short-term trainings and indirect influences through its regulatory frameworks are substantial additions to a changing higher education system fraught with challenges.

Strains in the system

Despite its contributions, HERQA has now reached a stage where its capacity, efficiency and integrity are tested to the limits.

From an initial limited number of institutions, the Ethiopian higher education sector has grown to accommodate around 180 public and private higher education institutions countrywide, creating an excessive workload, leading to bureaucratic delays to institutions seeking HERQA’s speedy and efficient services.

The agency’s capacity and support activities have substantially dwindled over the years, falling short of addressing the growing challenges of the sector.

Notwithstanding the availability of dedicated and ethical experts who strive to discharge their responsibilities, the number, quality, experience and ethical standards of the existing staff are currently far below the professional requirements needed.

Subsequently, the agency has not been able to monitor diploma mills or control a litany of rising fraudulent activities. The agency has therefore found it difficult to meet the expectations of the government, institutions, students and Ethiopian society. Most stakeholders agree that there is now a sense of urgency to reverse this trend and revitalise the positive gains of the system.

Where HERQA needs to change

Experience has shown the major areas where the agency needs to reform pertain to system and structural efficiency, institutional capacity, autonomy, resource deployment, and over-reliance on a limited mode of operation.

Given the huge responsibilities HERQA is assuming, the current organisational structure demands some change and its existing budget also requires improvement commensurate with the huge operations the agency is undertaking.

The poor infrastructure and underutilisation of information and communications technology has made the tasks of the agency archaic and cumbersome. These areas and the existing poor data management system again need significant improvements.

While the agency is assumed to have relative autonomy in terms of possible interference in its accreditation decisions, all matters related to the employment and administration of staff is governed by Ethiopian civil laws which offer little flexibility to adjust existing recruitment and payment modalities.

For instance, as a result of its low salary scale and per diems, HERQA has found it difficult to recruit suitable staff and prevent the staggering turnover rate, which has become a serious challenge and the source of inefficient practices.

Towards a more diversified system

If anything has been learnt about quality assurance since 2003, one major lesson should be the challenges of delegating all national responsibilities to a single quality assurance agency. The Ethiopian experience calls for fundamental changes.

The challenges can be met by addressing the internal deficiency of HERQA and creating a mechanism whereby a set of diversified procedures and actors are aligned in the creation of a robust system of quality assurance.

At the internal level the organisational structure and governance system of HERQA should be framed in such a way that it promotes excellence, integrity and credibility, and commands respect like any professional institution.

In addition to increasing financial and material resources which allow meaningful delivery, there must be enabling arrangements that would equally permit the recruitment of professional staff on the basis of capacity, interest and integrity.

Given the current size and demands of the sector, it is also important to introduce alternative and complementary mechanisms of handling some of the current responsibilities. Tasks entrusted to the agency like granting the equivalence of credentials and keeping higher education institutions’ data could be transferred to the ministry of higher education and science. This would allow the agency to focus more on its core tasks.

Strengthening the system

In terms of diversifying the system, introducing a range of additional mechanisms of external quality assurance and relevant stakeholders can assist in strengthening the system.

The involvement of employers in verifying credentials during employment could deter most of the illegal admissions made at higher education institutions for which the agency gets accused recurrently.

Strengthening professional associations or introducing subject assessment schemes by external bodies could in the long run also help relieve the agency of programme accreditation, an increasing burden. The introduction of the qualification framework being developed at a national level may have its own contribution in terms of changing from the current input-focused to an output-based system.

In the long term, the external quality assurance system may also consider instituting complementary agencies with different roles at national or regional level. While the major agency can have the responsibility of supervising and developing the overall quality assurance system, subsidiary or regional agencies can take on the role of programme accreditation. The practice of some countries in granting a self-accrediting status to credible institutions with solid internal quality assurance systems is another useful lesson.

The task of ensuring quality at an external level demands ample resources, huge commitment and employing integrated tools and mechanisms. Ethiopia’s quest for quality cannot be achieved with the meagre resources provided and with an excessive dependence on the outcomes of HERQA alone.

Strengthening HERQA’s overall capacities and complementing its efforts through diversified modes of operation could ensure the achievement of meeting the major objectives of quality assurance and responding to the evolving challenges of the higher education sector.

Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, an affiliate scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE) at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy of Africa (CESA-AU). He may be reached at or