Quality assurance networks should work towards harmonisation
Fordjour said the ongoing HAQAA initiative has impacted the processes and policies defining and documenting quality in higher education on the continent, stating that, “no member state can alone offer the full range of world-quality higher education affordably and sustainably”.
Indeed, efforts to advance quality assurance awareness and capacity-building activities have picked up steam across the continent.
But more collaborative action is needed. Quality assurance agencies and networks in Africa have to work in synergy in pursuit of the harmonisation of quality assurance (QA) systems, the mutual recognition of qualifications, and enhanced mobility of academics and labour in Africa.
The need to regulate and assure the quality and standards of higher education systems and programmes has resulted in the creation of national quality assurance agencies and the establishment of national councils or commissions for higher education responsible for the quality assurance of higher education.
The main role of these entities is to ensure a level of acceptable quality across the wide array of higher education programmes and institutions in countries across the continent.
The African continent continued to register a growth in the number of new agencies that are being created. Also, agencies that have been in existence continue to strengthen their quality assurance activities through external quality assurance evaluations.
Quality assurance networks
In a bid to support the quality assurance agenda in Africa, a number of continental and regional networks have been established, including the African Quality Assurance Network (AfriQAN), the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ANQAHE), the East African Quality Assurance Network (EAQN), the Francophone Network of Quality Assurance Agencies (RAFANAQ), and the Southern African Quality Assurance Network (SAQAN).
The Lusophone Quality Assurance Network was created at the conclusion of the AfriQAN conference that was held in October 2022, in Maputo, Mozambique.
Most of these networks are regionally based and are committed to contributing to the quality assurance and improvement of higher education and research in their regions by strengthening the work of national quality assurance agencies, higher learning institutions, regional organisations and other projects with similar objectives.
The networks are at different levels of development, largely due to their funding status. The networks composed of quality assurance agencies tend to be more vibrant in terms of activities and perform well compared to those of higher learning institutions.
In addition, networks that have external funders have more visibility than those that rely only on the subscriptions of their members. The leadership of the networks is also another element that drives their success. Networks with committed leaders perform better and members feel motivated to participate in the activities of the network in anticipation of impact.
Harmonising quality assurance
The Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation (HAQAA) initiative strives to support the development of a harmonised quality assurance and accreditation system at institutional, national, regional, and pan-African continental levels.
From 2016 to 2018, phase one of the HAQAA initiative (HAQAA1) was implemented by a consortium consisting of the University of Barcelona (coordinator), the Association of African Universities (AAU), the European University Association (EUA), the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).
During this phase, the African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ASG-QA) were developed and used during the quality assurance agency reviews of well-established agencies.
They were also used during the consultancy visits to countries without quality assurance agencies or countries with young agencies.
In addition, capacity-building activities in quality assurance were carried out and the African Quality Rating Mechanism (AQRM) has been developed as a quality assessment tool for higher education institutions in Africa and a way of supporting a culture of continuous quality improvement.
This tool continues to be used by different higher education institutions in Africa. HAQAA1 continued to support the realisation of the Pan-African Quality Assurance and Accreditation Framework which is an African Union-endorsed overriding framework for the harmonisation of quality assurance in higher education in Africa.
Phase two of the HAQAA initiative (HAQAA2), from 2019-22, is intended to build upon, upscale and promote the results of HAQAA1.
During the HAQAA2 initiative, the user’s guide for the African Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance (ASG-QA) was developed, more consultancy visits and quality assurance agency reviews have been carried out, and the African Quality Rating Mechanism, or AQRM institutional evaluations and capacity-building in quality assurance have continued to take place.
The initiative also supports the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA) – Higher Education Cluster, HAQAA2 policy component.
In addition, it is coordinating the Technical Working Group (TWG) for the development of the Pan-African Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agency. HAQAA2 is implemented by a consortium consisting of OBREAL Global (coordinator), that works towards interregional collaboration between higher education, AAU, EUA, ENQA, and DAAD.
It is worth noting that the AAU is the only pan-regional stakeholder body representing African universities in the consortium. It is the official implementing body of the African Union Commission’s strategy for the Harmonisation of African higher Education and has been hosting the African Quality Assurance Network (AfriQAN) Secretariat since 2007.
It also supports institutional quality development as well as defining policies regarding higher education harmonisation in Africa. Furthermore, the AAU is the official implementer and promoter of the African Quality Rating Mechanism, or AQRM, as mandated by the African Union Commission.
The AAU regularly organises training and capacity-building programmes dedicated to quality and quality assurance.
After the successful implementation of HAQAA1 and the very positive implementation of HAQAA2, the European Commission has made a call to tender for an HAQAA3 initiative.
This phase will be built on the results of the previous two phases with the aim of improving the quality and harmonisation of African higher education and supporting students’ employability and mobility across the continent.
Among others, the Inter-University Council for East Africa in collaboration with the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, and the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) initiated the development of a harmonised quality assurance system for higher education in East Africa in 2008.
A number of harmonised QA policies, guidelines and tools were developed and are now in use in the region. Capacity-building programmes for QA officers and leaders of universities were also carried out at regional and country levels. The initiative increased the collaboration of quality assurance agencies in East Africa. It also supported the establishment of the East African Quality Assurance Network.
Launched in 2017, the UNESCO-Shenzhen (China) Funds-in-Trust Project was intended to strengthen higher education systems in Africa by developing quality assurance mechanisms.
The activities of the different actors above continue to keep pushing the QA agenda on the continent.
These were documented and discussed during the AfriQAN conference, and it was also an opportunity for identifying common challenges and best practices across all regions and linguistic lines in Africa.
Conferences provide an opportunity to share QA best practices with the objective of promoting a culture of QA in higher education in Africa, as was stated at the AfriQAN conference by its president, Professor Maria-Luisa Chicote.
On the one hand, in their respective regions, quality assurance agencies do share good practices and expertise for the advancement of quality higher education. However, the collaboration of agencies beyond regions remains low, despite efforts by QA entities to foster collaboration and links.
On the other hand, quality assurance networks from different African regions have also started collaborating and do share their best QA practices. They also share their QA experts to engage in various quality assurance building initiatives, including assessments.
A dissemination project of the ASG-QA, coordinated by a group of different networks, namely EAQAN, the RAFANAQ and the National Council on Quality Assurance in Higher Education in Mozambique (CNAQ) started in January 2022.
In this project, the three actors documented the quality assurance systems in place in their regions, compared their different systems, shared best practices and disseminated the ASG-QA as a team, in their regions and beyond.
Each year, in their respective regions, RAFANAQ and EAQAN organise conferences where the network members meet, debate, and share experiences and new development in QA. Efforts to invite other networks started and these two networks managed to invite representatives of the other networks to attend their conferences.
Furthermore, through other QA initiatives in all the African regions, efforts in sharing QA best practices are part of the activities that are contributing to the harmonisation of QA practices.
With the coordination of DAAD, which is one of the partners in the HAQAA2 consortium, experts from QAA, universities, and regional organisations including the Conseil Africain et Malgache pour l’Enseignement Superieur (CAMES), the IUCEA and the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) organised capacity-building programmes for QA practitioners in Africa.
These programmes were an opportunity to share the QA best practices of different institutions and organisations.
The language barrier is one of the main hindrances to the collaboration between quality assurance agencies and networks across Africa. Institutions and individuals have the propensity to collaborate with others speaking the same language. This tendency derails the process of working together towards a common quality culture in Africa.
Inadequate political support is another challenge that QA institutions face. A lack of commitment and policies that lack sharp focus on QA impede development and collaboration in QA.
In addition, resistance to change in areas of QA, especially in ‘more established’ institutions, has been recorded.
Inadequate higher education funding is yet another major problem – with massive implications for QA and associated activities. Often, quality assurance agencies and networks lack enough funds to carry out activities – a lack that slows and derails the implementation of the QA agenda.
The high attrition rate of QA practitioners is another big challenge that the QA arena faces. This, combined with the lack of sustainability mechanisms, is causing institutions to spend excessive resources on their replacements, in some cases with unqualified personnel.
Awareness and capacity-building activities
Efforts in quality assurance awareness and capacity-building activities have picked up steam. However, creating an environment that promotes sustainability remains an arduous task that all actors continue to grapple with.
Hence, the importance of strengthening the synergies between and among quality assurance agencies and regional networks, working across linguistic lines to advance harmonised QA systems, the mutual recognition of qualifications, and enhanced mobility of academics and labour in Africa.
The role of the Association of African Universities in steering these synergies and taking leadership –as called for by participants of the conference – cannot be overemphasised.
Marie Eglantine Juru is a project officer at the Association of African Universities responsible for quality and quality assurance initiatives. She can be contacted on email@example.com. Damtew Teferra is the director of research and programmes at the Association of African Universities and professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Additional reporting by Francis Kokutse.