Cape Verde assesses universities’ quality for the first time

Cape Verde universities are facing their first complete scientific and institutional assessment, undertaken by a recently created Higher Education Regulatory Agency (Agência Reguladora do Ensino Superior – ARES) to improve the quality of higher education in the island country, about 500km west of Senegal.

The Cape Verdean government has been trying to raise the profile of its higher education sector by investing in public universities and trying to internationalise them. It has work to do – only one local institution out of 10, the public University of Cape Verde (Universidade de Cabo Verde – UNI-CV) located in the capital, Praia, reached the top 200 of the 2022 African University Rankings organised by the Australia-based uniRank. The university was considered the 138th best on the continent.

According to the chairman of ARES, João Silva, the country had only a pilot evaluation with six institutions before 2010 and, five years later, an unsuccessful assessment was staged by the Cape Verdean and the Brazilian ministries of education.

A 2012 government decision, however, ruled that Cape Verde higher education institutions should be evaluated quinquennially. ARES was created in 2018, in part to deliver on this decision. As an independent entity, it is responsible for the accreditation, evaluation and inspection of higher education entities and their training, taking that responsibility away from the government’s education ministry.

Therefore, from March until September 2022, the two public and eight private higher education institutions undertook self-assessment according to ARES guidelines (see the list below). In October 2022, members of ARES’s External Evaluation Committees (EEC) were announced – 10 of them – one per institution. They will check these reports and if necessary, contest them, Silva told University World News.

He said that, in January, EECs with “a large team of evaluators ... will carry out on-site visits to the institutions”, meeting the management teams and checking the information provided in their self-assessments in terms of teaching staff, facilities, laboratories and libraries. Then, in March, the EECs would have sent their reports to the institutions, giving them the chance to contest the results before the final reports are published, Silva added.

He expects that these assessments will help the government review the country’s higher education legislation in 2023. Silva stressed that such revision, which has been under discussion for five or six years, must be based on facts instead of guesswork or politically based decisions.

Some of the goals of this work, Education Minister Dr Amadeu Cruz told Cape Verde journalists in September 2021, are to prevent “the proliferation of institutions” and “have universities focused on their areas of expertise” to avoid excessive competition, which could cause colleges and universities to fail. Another goal of the legislative review is to change the professional regulations for lecturers, said Cruz, according to a news report.

According to Silva, the agency will use consultants to seek information from “all the higher education stakeholders” to help guide this review. One issue Silva would like to see addressed in the review is better clarification of the term ‘public interest’, which must be fulfilled when accrediting a university. He also wanted consultants to advise on distance-learning policies.

Universities welcome but fear assessments

To Cape Verde’s top university, UNI-CV, the assessment is “a very important evaluation to promote the improvement of our institution”, João Medina, its vice president for assessment, communication, and efficiency, told University World News.

The university is already working on its internal assessment ARES system, with its departments and faculties being supervised by its audit office and Medina’s department.

He said the review has already caused the UNI-CV to “think about an internal quality assurance system” because, as the largest university in Cape Verde, it “must deepen and improve everything that has to do with evaluation based on our own thoughts, actions and tools”.

Medina is looking for “a clear and fair exchange” during the whole assessment process, “so that we can all learn and win” and find parameters adjusted to the reality of higher education in Cape Verde.

One concern he has about the process, however, is that universities and colleges will be given only one of three grades in the assessments – satisfactory; partially satisfactory; or not satisfactory. These are too broad, argued Medina, “leaving room for subjectivities that may not help to achieve an “evaluative balance of the different institutions”. However, ARES head Silva said the system follows international standards, such as those in Portugal.

Professor José Veiga, president of the Higher Institute of Economic and Business Sciences (Instituto Superior de Ciências Económicas e Empresariais – ISCEE), located in Mindelo on São Vicente Island, said the self-exam helps “to self-reflect on our functioning at an institutional level” and offers “a clear and transparent presentation of the institution” when the results are published on the ARES website. Veiga would like to see “pedagogical and constructive” results instead of “a sanctioning attitude” from ARES: “This is the only way to truly achieve the levels and quality standards required,” he argued.

Certainly, that is the broad aim of ARES, with Silva highlighting that the aim of this first evaluation is to better understand the archipelago’s higher education system and give recommendations for continuous improvement. It is not up to the agency to force changes or even close institutions, he emphasised, given that such power is reserved to the minister of education, who should act only once erring universities have had time to correct their faults.

Lack of local experts a major concern

One issue is the amount of foreign influence within the reform process. Medina is pleased that ARES has been following the African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in Higher Education in its work.

These have been developed by the Harmonisation of African Higher Education, Quality Assurance and Accreditation, an initiative funded by the European Union working with the African Union. However, although these standards state that the involvement of international experts is considered a good practice, Medina is concerned that EECs formed “by foreign academics who come from a consolidated university culture with different funding systems”, may lack knowledge of the local academic reality.

To him, local universities should be assessed considering Cape Verde’s characteristics, such as being split across islands – its “archipelagic condition” – and the newness of its HE system.

Veiga agrees, asking for “teams with greater national representation to ensure knowledge of the local reality, always safeguarding the objectivity and rigour of the assessment”.

Silva said the prevalence of foreigners in EECs is due to a local lack of specialists at various levels. One problem with local membership is that, while the EEC regulation allows evaluation by peers, EEC membership can be blocked when their experts “belong to ‘competing’ institutions”.

In Dias’ opinion, in such a small country with 570,284 inhabitants, using overseas specialists avoids problems – he calls it “intrigue” – when experts from one Cape Verde institution assess others. Therefore, ARES has hired foreign experts, especially from other Portuguese-language countries, along with local former Cape Verde deans or former vice-deans.

University of Cape Verde (Universidade de Cabo Verde), the Atlantic Technical University (Universidade Técnica do Atlântico) – the other public higher education body; the Higher Institute of Economic and Business Sciences (Instituto Superior de Ciências Económicas e Empresariais); the Jean Piaget University of Cape Verde (Universidade Jean Piaget de Cabo Verde); the University of Santiago (Universidade de Santiago); the Intercontinental University of Cape Verde (Universidade Intercontinental de Cabo Verde); the Higher Institute of Law and Social Sciences (Instituto Superior de Ciências Jurídicas e Sociais); the University of Mindelo (Universidade do Mindelo); the Lusophone University of Cape Verde (Universidade Lusófona de Cabo Verde); and the Mindelo International School of Art (Mindelo – Escola Internacional de Arte).