The Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC), the permanent committee on quality of the Council on Higher Education, will complete the fifth scheduled audit of a higher education institution by the end of this month.
The HEQC has audited 26 higher education institutions, 15 of them public, since the inception of the institutional audits in 2004.
This seems an appropriate juncture to reflect on what has been learned about the public higher education system through the audits.
We first need to understand what audits are.
Audits are processes of external quality assurance. They look at the effectiveness of higher education institutions’ internal systems for quality management in teaching and learning, research and community engagement.
They are conducted by a panel of peers and experts, including an international auditor, supported by HEQC staff.
The audits conducted include five merged institutions, six universities that have incorporated campuses of other institutions and four institutions that have not been directly affected by mergers, but have lost campuses to other universities.
Out of the 15 institutions audited, nine are conventional universities, four are universities of technology and two are comprehensive universities.
Some of these institutions were historically black and disadvantaged, others were historically white and advantaged, but the majority are urban.
The restructuring of higher education through mergers and incorporations, initiated in 2001, has forced merged and non-merged institutions to redefine their identities.
In some cases, such as the comprehensive universities and the universities of technology, the restructuring was accompanied by changes in the designation of institutions and the need to rethink the nature, purpose and focus of their programmes.
The audit process showed a considerable effort and inventiveness in this regard.
The audits showed that initially mergers demanded careful attention to the alignment of business operations.
This was especially difficult in the area of human resources. In the process of sorting out the operational the academic enterprise was postponed to an extent.
Although some operational challenges exist, most institutions are starting to focus on their core functions and a sense of purpose and direction seems to be energising many of them.
Interestingly, the audits found that most students enrolled at these merged institutions are happy to be there and often like the new “brand” of their universities.
What about students and learning? In the past 15 years the higher education system has made progress in increasing the proportion of black students enrolled at institutions and in the balanced distribution of enrolments across different disciplines.
Yet the participation of young people in the system is still low compared with other countries and in relation to national needs.
Of particular concern is that the participation of African youth in higher education has not improved much since 1994.
The reasons are complex and often the result of a combination of elements, among which are poverty, bad schooling and the need for young people to assume family responsibilities early.
In relation to students who are in the system the HEQC’s audits confirm that performance, whether in terms of success rates or throughputs, is racially differentiated.
This problem is common to all audited institutions, although how it is addressed varies between institutions depending on resources, capabilities and leadership.
Causes for poor performance are multiple and include a lack of preparedness of students and staff.
Most institutions agree that their students are not ready for higher education.
The problem is more complex than it seems. It has to do, among other things, with the high school curriculum and the quality of high school teaching.
But it is also that university academics are seldom trained as teachers.
The nature of the organisation of teaching and learning is not always conducive to more reflective monitoring of student progress or the achievement of institutional goals.
Teaching and learning, contrary to research, operate in a devolved framework in which reviews and assessments are not regular.
This is reinforced because many institutions lack the appropriate information technology systems to track students at risk.
The audits indicate that often the conceptualisation of the educational process has not been conscious enough of pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning.
This results in the lack of a theoretically informed self-critique of teaching and learning and in a lack of opportunity to generalise or share the good practices that exist.
These problems manifest themselves differently and institutions’ finances, human resources and location have a major role in making a situation better or worse.
Is there any good news in higher education?
Fortunately, yes. There is greater awareness of the need to professionalise and promote teaching and learning. Institutions use different strategies to achieve this: the inclusion of teaching portfolios in the processes for the promotion of academics and the induction of the new generation of academic staff in teaching and learning issues.
The increased awareness of the relationship between institutional culture, student performance and the conduct of institutional climate surveys allow a deeper understanding of students’ experiences.
The development of a closer relationship with the world of work has resulted in the fine-tuning of subject content.
All the institutions visited are putting in place different measures to improve throughput, to deracialise success rates and generally to provide more and better student support.
Because panels interview a good number of students and academics, audits provide a glimpse into the human dimension of the educational process.
The audits have shown remarkable levels of commitment among academic staff and students and provided excellent examples of innovative pedagogy and rethought curriculum.
The HEQC is preparing an analysis of the audit reports to identify the important trends in the three core functions. It is hoped this work will be ready early next year.
Dr Lis Lange is executive director of the Higher Education Quality Committee, which is part of the Council on Higher Education