South Africa has launched a higher education quality committee modelled on international counterparts and charged with promoting quality assurance, auditing the quality mechanisms of institutions and accrediting new programmes.
The committee has been created as a permanent unit in the government's council on higher education, in line with 1997 legislation. It will oversee quality assurance in public and private universities, technikons and colleges, as well as professional and workplace higher education and training courses.
It will have to tackle the legacy of an apartheid past that rendered quality uneven across the system and weakened capacity in many institutions.
Executive director Mala Singh, a former philosophy professor at the University of Durban-Westville, said: "We will be putting building blocks in place for the transformation of higher education."
All higher education courses will have to begin slotting in to South Africa's outcomes-based national qualifications framework, still under construction by the South African Qualifications Authority. The committee must comply with the SAQA's rules.
The 13-member committee will be an umbrella authority involved in institutional auditing, programme accreditation, capacity building and research. It will also be involved in coordinating the activities of other bodies working in the quality field, which it can contract to do work. It will be funded by a mix of state money, fees and donations.
The committee's founding document says it will "provide external validation of the judgements of providers about their quality levels, based primarily on self-evaluation reports. It will also provide a comparative framework for quality judgements across the system."
Underpinning the framework are assumptions that institutions will be consulted over criteria and procedures, that the focus will be on "development rather than punitive sanction", and that there will be a mix of self-evaluation and external assessment.
The committee will carry out site visits and peer review. Education minister Kader Asmal warned that the committee would "not tolerate sustained inefficiency and the continued absence of internal quality checks and balances".
But many academics are wary of the strains generated by quality assurance procedures in a sector already groaning under pressures of under-funding and continual change.