South Africa's Committee of University Principals is to establish a quality promotion unit along the lines of Britain's Higher Education Quality Council to monitor and advise on academic standards.
Mbulelo Mzamane, vice chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, is to chair the unit which will be working by early next year. The soon-to-be-established South African Qualifications Authority will be invited to participate.
"The thrust of the unit will be quality promotion and not the ranking of universities, which has proved disastrous in some countries," says Jos Grobbelaar, chief director of the CUP.
Quality assurance will remain largely in university hands. The unit will send them detailed questionnaires to help them pinpoint areas where quality needs to be improved. A group of about 30 academics will also visit universities.
"Each university will receive an individual report aimed at helping with quality issues on campus. The emphasis will be on looking at systems which are in place, rather than at individual academics or departments," said Mr Grobbelaar.
South Africa's 21 universities will subsidise the unit on a pro-rata basis, with the average annual contribution being about Pounds 3,300.
Degree standards have been very uneven in South Africa and universities have suffered from a combination of student expansion and declining real-terms funding in the past decade.
The exercise has been given added urgency by the proposed establishment of SAQA: universities, uneasy over threats to their autonomy, will use the unit to ensure that quality assurance remains under their control.
It is almost certain that once the authority is in place, the unit will apply to become an education and training quality auditor, subordinate bodies which SAQA will accredit to ensure agreed standards are met at educational institutions.