Quality plan for global value

June 6, 1997

A national quality assurance system to control degree standards at South African universities and technikons is to be set up by the government.

It would give all tertiary qualifications in South Africa currency at home and abroad.

A draft white paper on higher education proposes that universities, technikons and higher education colleges, both public and private, be closely monitored for quality by an independent agency, the higher education quality committee, part of the new Council on Higher Education.

Working alongside existing quality assurance agencies, the committee will conduct institutional audits and programme evaluations for all the country's degrees and diplomas.

The system will be similar to quality assurance processes in the United Kingdom, combining self-evaluation exercises undertaken by institutions with independent outside assessments to look at quality control mechanisms being used by institutions and standards on individual courses.

The assessors will then suggest ways to improve standards. Where quality is found to be bad, they will insist on steps being taken to better it, emphasising improvement rather than punishment. The quality committee is likely to have the power to close courses down if quality does not improve.

Once the proposals become law, South Africa will join the three dozen or so countries that have set up higher education quality control systems in the past decade.

Institutions have welcomed the new system but there is uncertainty about exactly how it will work and its early days are likely to be turbulent.

Technikon (polytechnic) programmes have been evaluated by the Certification Council for Technikon Education (Sertec) for seven years, but university audits are in the experimental stage. There are no quality controls for private institutions or colleges offering higher education courses.

Danie Jacobs, head of Sertec, said: "We are delighted that the government has decided quality assurance must be part of higher education. It's what we've been working for. The fact that the job has been given to the Council on Higher Education is disturbing to us. But we will support it because we believe quality assurance is necessary across all of higher education."

The quality promotion unit of the Committee of University Principals, which has conducted pilot audits at universities, wants to keep quality assurance in the hands of its members.

"The higher education green paper suggested that Sertec forms the nucleus of a new sector-wide quality assurance agency," said Johan Brink, head of the unit. "We are pleased that the draft white paper recognises the role both Sertec and our unit have to play in quality assurance."

Although the draft white paper underestimates the role of institutional audits, according to Wieland Gevers, a deputy vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town,"that is not serious and can still be corrected".

Pilot audits conducted at the universities of Rhodes and Port Elizabeth earlier this year had a powerful effect on the institutions' understanding of what is really meant by effective internal quality assurance, he added. "It involves relatively few resources, has a short lead time, and gives beneficial outcomes immediately. Best practice is rapidly diffused through the collegiality of the process and the use of people external to the university system as members of the visiting teams."

Some resistance to "outside" interference and course evaluations is expected from universities.

Although assessments are already being done by professional boards, Sertec and others, universities believe they will be more difficult to apply to non-professional degrees such as bachelors of arts, social science and science. Sertec does not agree.

"Quality assessments by programme are time-consuming and expensive. They are also problematic in the kind of inequitable system that now exists in South Africa. Institutional audits prepare institutions for these later phases of general quality improvement," argues Professor Gevers.

"Universities have accepted a Committee of University Principals-run quality assurance system and created the Quality Promotion Unit on their own initiative. All universities were in favour."

Universities are also worried about the quality assurance role of the new South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). It is implementing the National Qualifications Framework into which higher education degrees and diplomas will slot.

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