Twenty audits have been conducted by the higher education quality committee (HEQC) so far and have required an enormous amount of work from higher education institutions. They have had to prepare a comprehensive self-evaluation against the HEQC audit criteria, provide extensive supporting documentation, organise the logistics of hosting an audit panel, and mobilise different layers of internal and external institutional stakeholders to be interviewed in a marathon schedule which takes approximately five days. Time, funds, intellectual and emotional energy have been invested in abundance by all institutions which have undergone the process.
For the HEQC, each audit required the training and selection of auditors, chairpersons and report writers with many meetings for the institution’s leadership to decide on the audit schedule, the negotiation of the interviews of an average of 350 people per audit, the coordination of the production of the audit report and subsequent interactions with the institution.
Research conducted during and after the audit process as well as the interaction of the HEQC secretariat with institutions after the audits suggest that higher education institutions have benefited considerably from the introspection forced upon them by the audit, that colleagues who seldom meet have heard of each other’s work for the first time, that institutions have been asked questions that they infrequently ask themselves and have been forced to think of their work in different ways. Audit reports have provided views which have been, at the least, thought-provoking and recommendations have been made that have helped institutions unlock processes and issues.
The HEQC set itself the difficult task of turning quality assurance, a technique of dubious intellectual and political origins given the Thacherite origins of efficiency and accountability in the New Public Management discourse, into a tool for the transformation of the higher education system to serve a democratic society. This was not easy to conceptualise or to translate into a functioning system and it produced a range of conceptual challenges and tensions, many of which were brought to the fore by the HEQC itself.
The first challenge was the understanding of fitness of purpose as a legitimate area of enquiry to establish the quality of a higher education institution. The second was the understanding of transformation as an appropriate framework to look at the fitness for purpose of higher education institutions and the way they translated their missions into teaching, learning, research and community engagement policies and practices. More recently, the institutions and the HEQC are grappling with the need to engage with quality in relation to specific aspects of institutional mission and system differentiation and their relation to the various histories of South African higher education institutions without creating a two-tiered higher education system. None of these challenges are completely resolved. It is in the very nature of the issues at hand (and of the actors who grapple with them) that conceptualisations are modified by practice and vice versa.
The production of audit reports has not been as fast as desired nor are all audit questions and recommendations in the reports equally sharp. Yet our interaction with institutions apropos of their improvement plans indicates that they have taken the outcomes of the audits seriously and have benefited from the process.
Given that the first cycle of audits of public higher education institutions will only be completed in 2011, the jury is still out on the actual impact of institutional audits, on improving the quality of education provided by our universities, on issues such as equity and redress —understood not only as a numbers game, but also as a complex educational matter in the transformation of institutional cultures and on the repositioning of institutions within the higher education system.
The HEQC continuously commissions research on its own work as a way to identify areas for improvement and revision as well as on the outcomes of the audits. These research reports shed light on system-level trends, which help the higher education system, government and the general public to understand the effect of policy implementation and help the HEQC to reflect on its conceptualisations and practices.
Dr Lis Lange is the executive director of the HEQC