What does it take to reform a quality assurance authority?
The reasons behind halting its accreditation processes and the new plan remain unclear. What is clear, however, is that the wholesale hiatus in the accreditation of new programmes and institutions appears to be a first incident in the 20-year history of the authority which was established as the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency, or HERQA, in 2003.
Growing negativity about the woeful performance of the private higher education (PHE) sector, including recent complaints that were escalated to parliamentary level, must have set the authority in motion to act.
However, the authority’s presumed desire to reform itself and its functioning mechanisms has never been satisfactorily addressed in the past.
As the ETA proceeds with preparations ahead of the next Ethiopian academic year, the need for careful planning, wider consultation and a strategic roadmap is clear in order to ensure that the outcome benefits the sector as a whole and, particularly, the country’s tremulous quality assurance system.
There may be many questions that need to be contemplated at this point. What are the challenges identified by ETA as the most urgent and relevant? How comprehensive is the change the authority is planning? Which stakeholders are being consulted and to what extent are their views being incorporated? How inhibiting or motivating are the envisaged changes?
The ETA is currently preoccupied with revising its guidelines, which are expected to be more stringent. However, the change should equally, if not more importantly, be concerned with addressing the plethora of issues and practices that have impacted on the authority’s efficiency over the past two decades.
In fact, the ETA’s attempts to change will continue to be questioned – unless due focus is placed on the many issues of concern, of which the key ones are highlighted below.
The Ethiopian PHE sector is characterised by a variety of institutions, including those primarily set up for profit-making purposes.
Uppermost among many other factors that contribute to the lack of trust in the private sector is the excessive profit motive that drives many of them as well as some institutions’ flagrant violation of the law.
Flouting government regulations and standards, using sophisticated means to elude government inspection, and engaging in corrupt practices have become major challenges in the system.
In addition to the lack of self-discipline on the part of private providers and government’s failure in striking the right balance between its facilitating and controlling roles, the collusion by staff, parents and individual students who want to obtain academic credentials regardless of the means they employ, continues to exacerbate the problem.
The government, in the past, has chosen to take measures like the closure of teacher education and law programmes provided by all private operators, issuing periodic and wholesale public warnings, and using print and social media outlets to expose the ‘wrongdoings’ of private providers.
Instead, the government could have countered the negative impact of illicit providers in a timely fashion by identifying and encouraging law-abiding institutions, and charting a sustainable long-term strategy through the involvement of a broad spectrum of the society and its own entities.
The reform agenda of the authority should, thus, envisage the need for understanding the behaviour of unscrupulous providers, studying the reasons and mechanisms behind their sham practices, and designing appropriate mechanisms to tackle the challenges.
The ETA draws its predominantly young staff from various disciplines and walks of life. Many of them come with limited knowledge about (higher) education in general and the PHE sector, in particular.
The authority makes efforts in closing this gap through in-house training, but the competency of the staff is often far below the capacity of the institutions which they serve. This is further compounded by the limited training opportunities available to staff at PhD level.
Notwithstanding the high staff turnover rate, the meagre salary scale of the authority does not attract capable and experienced individuals to join the institution on a permanent basis. There are also limited incentives for part-time staff.
The same is true of the infrastructure and facilities which are not commensurate with the responsibilities and tasks the authority is expected to discharge.
The recent move by the government to include the responsibility to assure quality at all levels of the education system, including general education, is expected to further weaken the ETA’s capacity – already stretched to its limits.
Despite repeated calls, little has changed in terms of the quality assurance schemes the authority has been using over the past two decades.
The input orientation, which provides limited space for process and output elements in the national quality assurance system, still dominates the accreditation and re-accreditation practices of the authority.
The predominant tradition of ‘ticking boxes’ during accreditation visits provides little flexibility and room for innovative institutions that wish to use their resources wisely, creatively and efficiently.
Unnecessary and cumbersome demands can force institutions to comply with hard and fast rules that they know have nothing to do with ensuring the quality of education provided, nor are they assisting institutional development and growth.
Service standards and accountability challenges
Notwithstanding improvements made over the years, there are many standards set by the authority which institutions still find unrealistic or difficult to meet. Such gaps require wider consultation with providers, appreciation of current realities and flexibility to fix the problems.
Despite the availability of generic guidelines and checklists, there are also times when institutional assessments and the services provided by the authority are influenced by the whims and feelings of individual reviewers.
Institutions are often required to comply with demands which may not be necessarily based on guidelines set by the authority or have little regard for institutional autonomy, consent or suggestion. Variations among reviewers in terms of addressing a similar issue (for example, programme nomenclature) are often common and the result of individual preferences, manifesting the sheer lack of tangible mechanisms for operational moderation.
Tardiness is also a common feature in the absence of standards set with regard to the time a specific service should take and the accountability thereof. As a consequence, services that require timely responses, such as the renewal of accreditation permits, are often delayed. When such gaps have to be addressed, repeated reminders and calls from private higher education institutions (PHEIs) are the norm rather than the exception.
Concerted effort is, hence, needed in setting formal mechanisms necessary for contesting the lack of accountability at individual or system level and ensuring the rights of institutions in this regard.
Despite endless promises and some efforts in the past, it has not been possible to put Ethiopia’s most dominant public sector under the ETA’s radar.
Public universities, which cater to more than 85% of the higher education enrolment in the country, are hardly inspected with regard to their policies and practices as is often the case with the private providers.
On top of the negative impact this dichotomy can create, it holds serious implications in hindering efforts directed at improving the overall quality of the education system which the ETA is entrusted with.
Malpractices and bad influences
The former director of HERQA once remarked that the mushrooming of hundreds of PHEIs, despite their poor preparation and resources, is often described as the outcome of the prevalence of a variety of malpractices such as corruption and nepotism which must have made this possible.
The ETA’s recent measures, such as the development of a hotline for whistle-blowing purposes and an online system to apply for accreditation, must have contributed to combating various forms of malpractices and bad influences, but such efforts need to be strengthened further.
Blueprint for a meaningful reform
The foregoing is an indication that the ETA’s efforts to reform its working mechanisms should not be limited to revising its guidelines and checklists – which cannot fully provide the solution required to transform itself into a more credible institution capable of responding satisfactorily to current challenges and future demands.
A closer study of the existing capacity and limitations of the authority, the varied external and internal factors that affect the authority’s performance, and the possible impact of the envisaged plan on the future growth of the higher education sector suggest the need for considering many more important issues and dimensions at such a critical moment when change is demanded from every corner of society.
Those who seek real change should be wary of the assumption that the challenges of a failing quality assurance system can be fixed through the sole apportioning of the blame to and the exclusive efforts of a single authority like the ETA. This is especially so in a context where such an authority is not always the source of the problem nor possesses the magic wand to provide the solution for every problem the sector is entangled with.
As noted earlier, the current state of affairs within the quality assurance system of the Ethiopian higher education sector, and particularly the PHE sector, is the result of long years of neglect during which numerous and complex challenges were left unattended to or poorly handled by all parties, including the government itself.
Parents, individual students and unscrupulous institutions have also contributed a lot to the illicit practices that have engulfed the sector. Employers and politicians have done very little in setting mechanisms in place for deterring unlawful practices, leading to a public outcry that cannot be ignored.
That is why the authority, perhaps together with the ministry of education, needs to develop a national reform blueprint that guides its future plans and activities.
Unquestionably, the reform plan should involve the active participation of all internal stakeholders whose views and opinions must be incorporated. Unlike in the past, enlisting the help of key external stakeholders like employers, professional associations and relevant government ministries must be earnestly sought.
At this particular juncture, the ETA should receive close attention and special support from the government and all members of society who have been demanding a more robust and dependable system.
A mere call for improvement and change, without providing the needed support and making oneself part of the change, will derail the reforms the authority is currently undergoing.
Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education 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 for Africa. He may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a commentary.