Three years ago the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) was the subject of attention following the closure of 15 MBA degrees offered by public and private higher education institutions due to poor quality.
The function of the committee, as the national body responsible for quality and standards in higher education, is in the spotlight again following allegations of plagiarism and poor quality involving PhDs.
Since 2001 the HEQC has been devising systems to evaluate how institutions safeguard and improve quality and ensure minimum standards.
The issue of what constitutes quality and who is responsible for its development and protection used to be a simpler and much less contested matter than it is now.
Universities were not only fully responsible for the quality assurance of their qualifications — using internal and external experts mainly from academia in a system of peer review — but they also did not need to explain or justify their procedures to any external body, except in the case of professional qualifications.
Given the greater emphasis on social and financial accountability now demanded of institutions by governments, formal systems of external quality assurance have been implemented in the last two decades, requiring higher education institutions to demonstrate that their systems for ensuring quality are in place and working effectively.
In many countries withdrawal of public funding and the right to offer some qualifications may be among the consequences of negative findings in evaluations conducted by external quality agencies.
In South Africa the Higher Education Act of 1997 made provision for such a national quality assurance system, run by the HEQC. The challenge to the national quality assurance body was compounded by apartheid legacies of uneven quality across the higher education system, academic wariness about state regulation of quality and the entry of a range of private providers (some of whom were new to educational provision). The HEQC has approached its work on the basis that the achievement of good quality in all sectors of higher education is an essential part of transformation and restructuring of the sector.
Although external quality assurance is now part of higher education regulatory systems in most countries, many external systems operate on the premise that the individual institution still is responsible primarily for quality and quality assurance in all core functions — but especially in relation to teaching and learning. This is a key principle guiding the work of external agencies. It is physically impossible for such agencies to check on the quality of every programme and qualification at every higher education institution in the country.
Institutions have to be vigilant about quality and ensure that appropriate systems are in place and functioning consistently.
What external quality assurance agencies do, as is the case with the HEQC, is validate the effectiveness of institutional systems for quality, based on self-evaluations which higher education institutions conduct and for which they provide a sample of evidence. Where formal complaints about possible quality compromises are referred to it by the education department, the HEQC follows up.
The HEQC accredits all new programmes in higher education if they meet minimum standards; it conducts national reviews of existing programmes; carries out institutional audits; and engages in quality promotion and capacity development to strengthen quality.
Lange is the executive director of the HEQC and Singh is the interim CEO of the CHE. For information on the HEQC, go to: www.che.ac.za