Are we regulating away the future of higher learning?

Tight government controls on registering and accrediting ­private education institutions have left many observers wondering what scope is left for the involvement of the private sector in higher ­education.

Private education is larger than ever, and growing—at the phenomenal rate of 30% a year, according to a 1999 Business Times estimate.

The government plays a major role in funding public institutions and is therefore both player and ­referee in higher education.
It seems to be using its regulatory powers to pursue a ­politically motivated agenda—that is, to curtail private higher education radically in order to save the student market for public institutions.

But why defend public education at all costs, even where the quality of private provision matches or exceeds public provision? Representatives of private higher education institutions have repeatedly voiced their support for the goals of accreditation—the internationally recognised practice of inspecting educational institutions in order to protect the public from fly-by-night operations and to ­advance standards of educational quality.

Since a good reputation is ­essential, many private educators ­initially supported the Higher ­Education Act of 1997, which introduced mandatory accreditation for all private institutions. Three years on, however, this ­initial support has been washed away by a tide of anger and disappointment.

Private institutions are exasperated by the Department of Education’s and South African Qualifications Authority’s (Saqa) registration and accreditation processes, which are so flawed that they cannot possibly produce the results they were intended to achieve. In its rush to regulate private providers, the government has stumbled head first into an industry it knows very little about and whose size far exceeds its capacity to handle.

The result has been long delays in submissions for accreditation and hopelessly over-extended education department staff, who often seem confused about the system they are implementing. The government is imposing an ­unsuitable standardisation-­of-product approach at the expense of innovation and legitimate diversity.

Saqa’s accreditation criteria for courses private and foreign colleges and universities offer basically ­duplicate guidelines originally ­developed for technikons. Measuring everything according to the existing standards of our technikons is a recipe for ensuring mediocrity in the higher education sector. Furthermore, this one-size-fits-all approach fails to recognise institutional differences.

Private institutions may have different missions, goals and responsibilities to public ones (in particular, private institutions do not have to account to the government for the use of public funds, as they do not receive any); and different does not have to mean inferior.

Both the accreditation criteria and the blinkered, bureaucratic way they are being ­interpreted are out of line with international accreditation trends, which take each institution’s educational mission centrally into ­account. These trends also encourage diversity and technological ­innovation while ­ensuring that they all have adequate systems of quality assurance. Emerging trends not addressed by our accreditation criteria include ­distance and hybrid distance-contact education programmes, electronic learning and e-libraries.

Private institutions have embraced innovations in response to market needs, especially the demand for ­occupationally linked continuing education for working adults. Throughout the world, education is experiencing a technological revolution that is merging the worlds of education and work to address the learning needs of working professionals.

Private institutions have to (and do) move, change and learn rapidly—as well as take on suitable international partners. At every turn they have been frustrated by the insular mentality of ­education ­authorities—fearful of changes and new modes of ­delivery, unsympathetic to the needs of the ­private ­sector and hostile to ­foreign programmes in the domestic market.

The government’s attempts to close out foreign institutions received widespread publicity early last year. Less well-known are the effects of the onerous accreditation process, ­required for each new course, which stifles programme innovation and makes it ­almost impossible to keep up with market trends.

Each accreditation ­request typically takes a year to process and involves close monitoring by senior staff at the institution concerned. The process is so ­difficult and costly that few would want to go through it again, and this encourages institutions to keep their programmes the same.

Private institutions are currently at a loss as to how to cooperate with the education department while at the same time protecting their reputations for quality, addressing market trends and remaining profitable. At the root of their dilemma is the education department’s apparent ­inability to understand that it needs to work with the private sector.

In fact, the education department has ­systematically excluded the private sector and ignored its recommendations at each stage of the development of the accreditation system. I suspect that the Saqa accreditation system is being used as a weapon in a larger campaign against private education.

Why, for example, have public universities and technikons been exempted from the process that is required of private institutions? Why have the public ­institutions been granted automatic accreditation for an indefinite ­period? And if the government ­supports the role of the private sector in higher education, why the reluctance to include representatives of private education on key ­decision-making bodies?

With skills development a major part of the government’s national ­development strategy, why is it ­allowing outdated quality-assessment policies and onerous bureaucratic procedures to retard the development of the higher education sector?

Perhaps it has inherited the regulating zeal of the apartheid government, responsible for much of the malaise in education; and has inherited also a ­distrust of the potential of market forces to discern good quality and ­reject bad. What have we learned from the mistakes of the past? Merely how to make new ones?

Emma Gordon is an educational consultant in private education

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