What is quality assurance in higher education?: Part Seven…lessons from the international community

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THE purpose of outlining the successes and failures of quality assurance systems is to show that we, in southern Africa, can learn lessons from what others have done.
We also believe that the effectiveness of a quality assurance system depends partly on the approach used and partly on the context.
On the one hand, it would be naive to simply uproot a system used in a very different country and apply it to, say, Botswana, Zambia or Zimbabwe.
On the other hand, it would be foolhardy to completely ignore the lessons learnt by other countries.
Even South Africa, which has had a significantly well-developed quality assurance system since the 1990s, can learn useful lessons from the international community.
One of the key lessons to learn from the experience of the international community is about relationships between stakeholders.
In this regard, developing an appropriate balance between Government and the national quality assurance agency on the one hand and higher education institutions, on the other, is important.
Within institutions, the degree to which the different stakeholders are involved is of importance.
If the quality assurance system is perceived by institutions to be an imposition from outside, you run the risk of institutions taking it as simply a legal requirement with the possibility that instead of focussing on issues of quality, institutions will find ways of pleasing the authorities without necessarily ensuring that there is quality enhancement in teaching and learning.
Similarly, if the input of students and academics is not taken seriously in an institution, the impact of their contribution to the process may be minimal.
On the other hand, higher education institutions should understand that they are accountable to Government and other stakeholders.
The traditional notion of academic autonomy has been modified by the development of the quality assurance enterprise.
Consequently, quality assurance agencies may be involved in steering the development of universities if this is in the national interest.
In Zimbabwe, for example, a good number of state universities were given specific mandates, such as a focus on science and technology, agriculture, science education or applied sciences.
This was because when these institutions were established, such disciplines were viewed to be of critical importance to national development.
Consequently, it is appropriate for the national quality assurance agency and Government to monitor these institutions to see whether they are adhering to their mandates without necessarily being restricted to those areas of study.
One of the objectives of this introductory chapter is to help southern African countries develop effective quality assurance systems.
The first thing to emphasise in this regard is for those with responsibility for quality assurance in higher education institutions to have a good understanding of the purpose of quality assurance.
In brief, quality assurance is about continuous improvement in the quality of learning, teaching and research.
This takes us back to the dimensions of quality defined earlier in terms of fitness for purpose, value for money and transformative development.
The objective is for institutions to see themselves having the responsibility of fulfilling these requirements.
The idea is not for institutions to simply produce reports that satisfy Government and the quality assurance agency.
In other words, institutions should look inwards to see whether there is continuous improvement in quality.
The purpose of quality assurance must be to refocus and re-orientate the system towards actual teaching and learning. (Singh 2010)
If the focus is on looking outwards to please external bodies, then quality may be sacrificed by developing strategies aimed at satisfying these external authority bodies as was the case with British universities.
On the other hand, there is a need to co-operate with quality assurance agencies because they are the specialists who know how quality can be maintained and developed and have the mandate to ensure that certain minimum standards are maintained.
Higher education institutions in southern Africa should co-operate with national quality assurance agencies and get guidance from them, but they should own the process without adopting the attitude that the main purpose of running a quality assurance mechanism is to please the CHE (South Africa) or ZIMCHE (Zimbabwe) or the NCHE (Namibia).
It is of primary importance to remember the universal principle is institutional self-evaluation and external validation.
What this amounts to is that there should be a proper balance between the seemingly contrasting imperatives of accountability and internal quality enhancement.
The two processes should complement each other in such a way that the outcome is that real value is added to institutional self-evaluation. (Singh 2010)
In a nutshell, this article recommends that quality assurance systems must be designed and structured in the context in which they exist which explains why they must be guided by both local and global philosophies.
In order to promote development and sustainability of economies, quality assurance systems must have an identity in order to serve the intended purpose.

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