Quality assurance efforts are a catalyst for change

As a sea of graduates, dressed in blue, paraded under a hot sun in a courtyard at the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone, anticipation, relief and excitement were palpable on every face. On their graduation day, 20 March, everyone was ready to celebrate the culmination of four years’ hard work.

Among the mass of new graduates were 18 university staff members who had committed themselves to improving the student experience of the next wave of young learners from across Sierra Leone.

These new quality assurance officers hail from the Tertiary Education Commission of Sierra Leone and the seven higher education institutions across the country.

They were graduating with new postgraduate diplomas in quality assurance in higher education, developed as part of the Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone (AQHEd-SL) project.

Quality matters

Higher education in Sierra Leone faces a number of challenges. Standards and teaching practices have varied across the country and there is a gap between what is taught in universities and the demands of employers and wider society. These are the problems that the AQHEd-SL project was set up to deal with.

Funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), through the British Council-led Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform (SPHEIR) programme, AQHEd-SL is a partnership of higher-education institutions across the country, as well as expert organisations from Sierra Leone and internationally.

Together, the partners are looking at improving higher education in the country with two broad themes: improving outcome-based education and boosting quality assurance.

The first part is about improving university curricula through curriculum redesign, embedding the development of critical thinking skills into courses, and implementing gender-responsive pedagogy to help ensure that changes benefit all students.

The second part is quality assurance, ensuring alignment of standards, accreditation and approaches in higher education across the country. It is in this aspect that the new quality assurance officers have a vital role to play.

Professor Ronnie Fraser-Williams, the quality assurance leader for the project and lead instructor on the programme, explains how these two aspects are linked.

“Over the past years we know there has been a huge cry with regard to quality in our higher education institutions. So, a programme like this was deliberately planned and designed so that we can bring quality into our teaching and learning … so as to begin to address some of the issues relating to the quality of our graduates that are leaving the institutions, that are going out into society,” he said.

Building expertise in quality assurance

Quality assurance in higher education improves standards and consistency but, before the AQHEd-SL project, only about four people working in the country’s higher education sector had received formal quality assurance training.

As one of the new quality assurance officers, Antoinette Turay of Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, noted: “At Fourah Bay College, we have so many challenges — the registration process, admissions process, all the processes, policies were not well in place; even though they are there, they are not effective.

“With this knowledge I have gained in quality assurance, we can now tackle those challenges together and also proffer solutions, since we have been taught how to settle challenges and how to respond to them accurately. We can do this now with the knowledge we have gained.”

The postgraduate diploma is a part-time, one-year course. Consistent with the wider approaches of AQHEd-SL around transforming higher education, the course uses a range of teaching and learning approaches to combine a strong focus on the principles of quality assurance in higher education with learning about practical implementation.

Through the diploma studies, participants develop action plans for quality assurance projects in their home institutions as part of their diploma studies.

The diploma was devised and taught by the various project partners with input from local and international experts.

Teaching of the programme was originally conducted jointly by Sierra Leonean and international experts but was successfully taught by 100% local experts in 2020, with members of the first cohort of trainees contributing to the teaching of the second — a testament to the capacity built through AQHEd-SL.

The project has now begun training a further 16 quality assurance officers who will join their newly qualified peers in their various institutions by September.

All the staff trained were already academic or administrative staff working in the partner universities and the Tertiary Education Commission.

This means that they have the advantage of already understanding the politics and weaknesses of their institutions, and are in the best positions to act. The fact that they were handpicked by the senior management of these institutions also means that they are trusted and empowered by their colleagues.

Moses Conteh of the University of Makeni illustrates the wider commitment that is nurtured through the diploma.

“I think it is not just for my own gain, but for the good of the university and the good of the country as well,” he said.

“As we all know, there is an urgent need to ensure quality in our educational institutions, and if you see the rapid growth of UNIMAK [University of Makeni] today, it is because we know very well the essence of quality assurance: making sure we deliver the right services, the right teaching the right curriculum in order for them [graduates] to go out and be able to get a job or create jobs for themselves,” he said.

The diploma course was taught to the external quality assurance officers at the Tertiary Education Commission and the internal quality assurance officers (across Sierra Leone’s universities and colleges) simultaneously.

As a result of this, strong friendships have grown between them, meaning that there is greater collaboration between the Tertiary Education Commission, as the external monitoring body, and the institutions.

Catalyst for wider change

The quality assurance officers also supply feedback into the wider goals of the whole AQHEd-SL project.

The newly trained officers support administrative and academic staff to deal with challenges leading to skills gaps in graduates that were highlighted by employers through the project.

This stakeholder engagement has been an ongoing process as part of curriculum revision activities undertaken by the project.

The quality assurance officers were part of this revision process and are the ones who can monitor and evaluate the implementation of newly revised curricula according to new quality standards and principles of outcome-based education implemented through the rest of the project.

But this did not just start happening at the point of graduation.

As project director Samuel Weekes, observes: “In fact, they are already having an impact. We visited institutions and found that, even before now, they have been having an impact, making changes such as improving on admissions processes, improving examination processes and bringing quality to the forefront of the institutions.”

Joseph Hoffman, speaking for the SPHEIR team, confirmed that much has been achieved by those who have received their postgraduate diplomas in quality assurance.

“Their achievement also says so much about the commitment and dedication of Sierra Leone’s higher education institutions in moving collaboratively towards national outcomes-based education, and their determination that quality assurance plays a key role in achieving that goal,” he said.

“Many countries in Africa and beyond can learn from the experience of the Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone team,” Hoffman added.

The commitment of the staff to higher education reform, even before official recognition of their qualifications, has been remarkable.

It is also deeply motivating that, during recent institutional visits, the vice-chancellors, principals and registrars of the partner institutions have expressed their commitment to continuing AQHEd’s work in quality assurance after the end of the project.

It is clear that this is just the beginning of a new and exciting phase for higher education in a country once known as the Athens of West Africa.

Assuring Quality Higher Education in Sierra Leone is bringing together higher education institutions across Sierra Leone to improve quality management in higher education and support the introduction and implementation of outcomes-based education. It aims to bring about a student-centred focus within higher education across the country, leading to a more responsive and capable national workforce. The partnership is led by the University of Sierra Leone, working with Njala University, the University of Makeni, the Tertiary Education Commission, all in Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers, King’s College London (UK), the 50/50 Group, INASP (UK), and the University of Illinois (US).

AQHEd-SL is funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as part of its SPHEIR or Strategic Partnerships for Higher Education Innovation and Reform programme to support higher education transformation in focus countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Hannah Lewis is the project manager of AQHEd-SL. This is a commentary.