Ensuring the quality of higher education has been the core business of the National Council for Higher Education (NCHE) since its inception by an Act of Parliament in 2003 (Act No 26 of 2003). Using my judgement as an expert and a provider of higher education, I must say, to all intents and purposes, the NCHE has contributed hugely to the quality and growth of higher education in this country. Equally, the Namibia Qualifications Authority (NQA) has significantly performed its mandate, but today my focus is only on the NCHE because of the informative 11th public lecture the regulatory body held at a local hotel last week.
The lecture, titled ‘Enhancing Higher Education System Performance Through Minimum Standards’ and delivered by Susanna Karakhanyan, generated live debates on the overarching topic of minimum standards for quality assurance in higher education. Karakhanyan brought a wealth of experience of quality assurance in higher education, having served as the seventh president of the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE).
What carried the day for everyone was that constructive comments and discussions on the status of higher education added to the huge success of the NCHE’s 11th lecture.
The stark absence of the mundane blame game which is normally characteristic of such forums sent signals that participants were level-headed in their approach. This was truly an academic undertaking that did not warrant uninformed, cheap and pedestrian talk.
Also, it was a positive thing to note that the audience was made up of most of the stakeholders in higher education.
In addition to the presence of the higher education accreditation bodies in the country, there was a heavy presence of Ministry of Higher Education, Training and Innovation officials, led by executive director Alfred van Kent, whose introduction set the tone for the lecture and the discussions.
Major public and private higher education institutions had many people in attendance, revealing that they take the quality of their programmes with the seriousness they deserve. Educators’ unions represented their members at this great lecture, and not to be outdone, members of the general public attended the lecture, both face-to-face and virtually. It reminded me of the national conference on education which the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture successfully held.
First things first. In higher education, core values of a university are crucial with the fundamental values of university tradition, having been signed by 388 rectors in 1988 at the 900th anniversary celebrations of the University of Bologna, Italy.
Established in 1088, the University of Bologna is one of the oldest universities in the world that has stood the test of time. Other values include “Equitable access, accountability, institutional autonomy, academic freedom and social responsibility”, according to Scholars at Risk (2017). Also, “values such as respect, empathy, equity and solidarity must be core to the mission of universities, colleges and technical institutes in the future” (UNESCO, Futures of Education, 2022). The above fundamental values of higher education are, therefore, the rules of the game; all our higher education institutions must strive to meet these values in order to provide quality education to their clients.
These values have to be seen in conjunction with the following performance standards: “equal access to quality education; safeguarding students; trust and accountability, leading to the consistency, reliability and validity of evaluations; recognition of qualifications; and international comparability” achieved through benchmarking or internationalisation of higher education.
One interesting question that emerged from the lecture was how to strike a balance between autonomy and accountability in higher education, especially in state institutions.
Public institutions, for example, may not have the autonomy to charge high fees, and this may affect the quality of education in many ways.
In some countries with strict state control, public institutions may not decide on the number of students to enrol, leading to the problem of shortage of infrastructure.
However, public institutions have the autonomy to introduce new programmes and terminate unwanted programmes.
The institutions are accountable to the government, students, and the public at large.
The government agencies responsible for quality assurance use external evaluations and transparency performance mechanisms to monitor the performance of these institutions. The answer to the question of autonomy versus accountability also seems to lie in Professor Bjorn Stentaker’s words: “Universal standards are crucial to promote recognition, probability and transferability of credentials. On the other hand, higher education providers need to have enough autonomy to perform their mission at the expected level of quality” (UNESCO 2022). Concerns were raised on the many challenges associated with the massification of higher education, which received due attention during the deliberations. Despite this, the proliferation of higher education institutions was considered healthy for the sake of diversification of qualifications and improved standards due to competition. Because of the demand for flexible learning pathways, some students need to register for pre-master’s or post-master’s qualifications, for example, while others do not mind the traditional pathways.
So, whether it is an established traditional university or research-intensive university, or a small college just entering into the business of higher education, it is quality education that matters most.
The take-home message from Karakhanyan was: “A robust higher education quality assurance system is imperative to ensure the integrity of the qualifications and maintenance of academic standards in the country.” Truly, the NCHE is doing a sterling job in this regard.
* Professor Jairos Kangira is a professor of English at the University of Namibia. Email address: email@example.com