How to ensure universities are meeting their stated goals

In the 2015 African Higher Education Summit in Dakar, Senegal, one of the principles endorsed was the need to promote operational excellence in institutional management. This principle might have been informed by the overwhelming evidence in the literature and empirical observations emphasising a significant correlation between instructional leadership and institutional effectiveness. The result was the idea that for African public universities to function more effectively, their leaders and managers needed to receive regular feedback on their performance.

An evaluative audit is a leadership and management feedback tool that focuses primarily on examining an institution or its programmes in relation to declared strategic goals, mission statement, stated standards and adopted vision.

It is a valuable source of learning. Research on effective learning posits that three things are needed to improve leaders’ and managers’ performance: (1) a clear, specific goal; (2) a genuine commitment to achieving that goal; and (3) feedback indicating what they are doing well and what they are not doing well or what needs to improve.

The university council (the university board or senate as they are called in some jurisdictions) is the highest policy-making body in the university governance system. It should arrange for an evaluative audit and the findings should be submitted to both the university council and academic council.

The evaluative audit is a critical aspect of institutional leaders’ accountability to their stakeholders. It assesses the strengths and weaknesses of a university or its programmes and offers valuable recommendations based on data collected.

Usually, an evaluative audit is undertaken by a committee of the university, a peer review team or site visitation team which inspects and observes the university or its programmes. A university council should have substantive issues to work with when it receives the evaluation report.

An evaluative audit must be distinguished from quality assurance. The latter focuses on planned and systematic review of an institution or its programmes to ensure that it meets an agreed minimum standard of education, learning conditions, scholarship and infrastructure. Evaluative audit is more of an umbrella term relative to quality assurance.

Why African universities are not evaluated

An African public university should be regularly evaluated by a team of experts to determine the extent to which it has achieved its mission, vision, strategic goals and standards. The evaluative audit takes the form of feedback, pinpointing areas of strength, areas that need improvement and other recommendations for the institutional leadership so it can make the necessary organisational changes in culture, structure, policy or practice.

That is to say, an evaluative audit offers internal feedback to assist institutional leaders and managers to enhance their effectiveness and efficiency, and to hold them accountable for their stewardship. Improvement or enhancement is its main impetus rather than fault-finding, finger-pointing or blame sharing.

Three major reasons may explain why African public universities are not evaluated to determine their success or failure in achieving their mission, strategic goals and standards.

One reason is that as soon as an African public university is established it drifts in different directions, searching for moorings to survive in a turbulent economic environment marked by gross underfunding, frequent funding cuts, government policy constraints, lack of institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and fluctuations in student enrolment. While these internal and external factors may make evaluation a complex process, they do not necessarily make an evaluation impossible or not worthy of being undertaken.

A second reason for not evaluating the success or failure of a public university relates to weak university management and leadership that sees no value in receiving feedback. Even if the government does not have any evaluation frameworks or does not promote an evaluation culture, one would expect university council leaders to take the initiative and arrange for evaluation of their institutions.

A third reason for failing to evaluate the success or failure of an African public university relates to the cultural patterns of public sector management. In Africa, the public institution management ethos does not include the development of criteria for evaluating the economic or social desirability of public sector institutions. Similarly, no evaluation criteria have been developed for evaluating public universities.

Finally, who should undertake the evaluative audit of public universities in Africa? Ideally, the evaluative audit should be performed by the quality assurance agency of the country in which the university is located. Nonetheless, most of the African quality assurance agencies lack the organisational capacity or resources to perform such evaluations effectively.

Alternatively, the ministry of higher education or ministry of education of the country where the university is located may set up a team of expert evaluators to perform the evaluation. However, this may be viewed as a recipe for political interference, particularly if the evaluation findings are used as a basis for dismissing university leaders or refusing to renew their employment contracts. Consequently, using a committee of experts who are unconnected to the university’s administration may be preferable.

Nonetheless, how can an African public university be evaluated in terms of the progress it has made in achieving its mission, vision, strategic goals and standards? This is a critical question that every public university leadership team must ask itself, but it is a question that is rarely asked by university leaders, political leaders or the general public.

Regardless of its specific location, every African university has mission and vision statements that are used in crafting strategic plans, strategic goals and values stemming from its strategic planning and declared standards for teaching, research and community service. For instance, in its strategic plan for 2020-30 Makerere University stated: “This strategic plan is aimed at transforming the university into a research-led institution with a multi-faceted research agenda; enhanced engagement with industry and the business sector.”

Makerere University’s vision for that planning period is to be “a thought leader of knowledge generation for societal transformation and development”, while its mission is “committed to providing transformative and innovative teaching, learning, research and services responsive to dynamic national and global needs”.

Its core values are accountability, professionalism, inclusivity, integrity and respect. This vision, mission and the core values can be used in evaluating Makerere University perhaps every two or five years until the next strategic planning session.

Societal impact

A majority of researchers and scholars agree with the notion that a university can play four distinct roles in society: knowledge production and repository (conducting scientific research and communicating results); contribution to business and industry services (knowledge evaluation or dissemination); knowledge transmission (teaching); and knowledge infusion (community outreach).

From my perspective, these four roles could be used as criteria for evaluating African universities whose mission is to achieve excellence in research, teaching and community outreach.

Using the knowledge transmission criterion, for example, to assess and evaluate Makerere University, one may ask the following questions: How many students graduated this year and in what fields? Are the fields those required for the transformation and development of Uganda? Is the university’s transformative and development agenda in alignment with that of the government? What is the gender composition of graduates and in what fields are they graduating?

Who gets access to this university in terms of socio-economic class, gender, physical disability and tribal affiliation? How innovative and transformative are the teaching pedagogies employed and learning assessment modalities used at graduate and postgraduate levels? Are the outcomes of education about producing graduates who are critical, creative thinkers and doers, rather than accumulators and consumers of the facts, figures and knowledge passed on to them?

In terms of knowledge production and repository, Makerere University has stated that it is a research-led institution with a variety of research focal areas.

Thus the evaluators may ask the following set of questions and collect the necessary data to answer them: How many research studies has the university produced and in what fields? Certainly, this includes theses completed by postgraduate students, research projects completed by lecturers and professors and those directly sponsored by the university. How relevant are those research studies to the transformation and development of Uganda? Even if the research studies are relevant, how are they disseminated and made available to policy-makers and other planners at the local and national levels?

These questions are highly significant in that in both the former president of South Africa Thabo Mbeki’s speech at the Times Higher Education Africa Universities Summit on 15 August 2015, and at the Association of African Universities conference in May 2009, relevant research studies were described as those that offer continentally made solutions to African problems in the areas of health, education, water, climate change, energy and food security.

Again, both conferences raised concerns about relevant research studies that have found permanent homes on office shelves instead of being made available to policy-makers at local and national levels.

Preparation for life

Universities are institutions that prepare students for life: waged employment, self-employment, entrepreneurship, citizenship, professional membership and private life. A university education should be both personally and socially relevant in order to qualify as proper preparation for life.

Again, using Makerere University as an example, preparation for life entails developing a suitable curriculum and providing students with an environment that is conducive to acquiring the skills, knowledge and dispositions deemed essential for societal transformation and development.

To what extent are Makerere University undergraduate and postgraduate programmes linked to the domestic labour market demands for skills, aptitudes and knowledge? Are the academic programmes well-grounded in ethical principles such that students are able to reason ethically as citizens, workers and members of professional groups? What evidence is available to demonstrate that students are being educated as thinkers and not as accumulators of facts and figures?

A national development partner

In the speech referred to above, Mbeki also made the following critical remarks: “We are firmly convinced that higher education on our continent should be situated at the centre of the African development agenda.” This suggests that African higher education generally and universities in particular should be development partners, not development antagonists.

They should commit themselves to excellent teaching, research and scholarship and offering solutions to the African development challenges and opportunities facing people across the African continent. This role of the university as a development partner is vital.

Accordingly, one may ask the following questions using Makerere University as a case in point: What research and scholarship has the university undertaken or is it undertaking to provide home-grown solutions to development challenges and opportunities facing Ugandans? More specifically, what contribution has it made towards the process of recovery and reconstruction of the northern region of Uganda that has been impoverished by the war that took place between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda?

What about the status of women in Uganda affected by high levels of poverty and violence, sexual harassment, low rates of literacy and limited access to resources? As delicate as the socio-political situation in the northern region in Uganda is, Makerere University could play an effective role as a development partner by providing vital analytical information to the government for reconstruction efforts.

Any African university can be evaluated based on its own vision and mission statements and strategic goals to determine how successful it has been. The evaluative audit process can employ observations, visits, analysis of documents, surveys of stakeholders and semi-structured interviews of key stakeholders as its methodological approach for data collection.

The findings of the evaluative audit could be used to improve institutional leadership practice, management efficiency, social impact and the role of the institution as a development partner.

For some time now the normative criteria most African universities use to consider their success or failure have consisted of the number of graduates they produce each year, the number of international graduate scholarships their graduates receive, and the total student enrolment figures. These criteria are limited as they do not demonstrate institutional leadership and management effectiveness.

For instance, leaders of most African universities have little or nothing to do with enrolment growth or decline. However, an evaluative audit based on an institution’s mission statements, adopted vision, strategic goals and declared standards could provide more comprehensive data upon which to determine its success or failure.

The adoption of an evaluative audit is more likely to expose the worthlessness of some institutional missions and visions carved in flamboyant, flowery language which lack any serious intention to achieve anything substantial for those universities. It would also demonstrate the difference between academic puff and real insights into a university’s performance.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy analyst in Canada.