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Opinion - Pursuing quality and relevance in higher education: Part 1

2020-09-11  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Pursuing quality and relevance in higher education: Part 1
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When higher education institutions design their qualifications or programmes, the questions of quality and relevance take precedence over other issues. In their mission statements, higher education institutions talk of ‘provision of quality education’, ‘excellence’, ‘innovation’, ‘education of international standards’, ‘make the world better’; ‘generate new knowledge’; and other words and phrases that give the impression that the education these institutions provide is the best. If the messages being communicated to the public were to be taken at face value, and meant exactly what they convey, instead of being rhetorical or used as marketing strategies, then there would be no need for students to choose which institution to enrol with as they would all be offering quality programmes. This does not suggest however that institutions make empty promises in their mission statements; many strive to live by their words. But it is also true that some institutions do not practice what they preach as there is a huge mismatch between what is contained in their statements and the actual quality of the education they offer. The disjoint between the promise of quality education and the reality on the ground in some tertiary institutions has led to the notion that quality education remains an elusive goal in some of our higher education institutions across the world. Some scholars in quality education have argued that “quality is a highly contested concept and has multiple meanings for people who conceive higher education and quality differently” (Parri, 2006, p.107). To illustrate the various manifestations of quality in higher education, Parri goes on to explain “quality as exceptionality, excellence”; “quality as zero errors”; “quality as fitness for purpose”; “quality as transformation, reshaping”; “quality as threshold”; “quality as enhancement”; and “quality as value for money”. These and other forms of quality indicate that quality means different things to different people or higher education institutions. What is encouraging though is that these forms point to a common denominator, the sense and conviction of striving to achieve excellence at all costs. It also explains the existence of quality control or enforcement mechanisms that exist in countries and in higher education institutions to regulate the provision of quality education to students.

While they are guided by the national education frameworks, higher education institutions have the liberty of incorporating their own innovative thinking, ideas and practices from public and private sectors in their qualifications. Input from stakeholders in the public and private sectors is incorporated in the qualifications since these entities will eventually employ some of the graduates from institutions. This is also important to fulfil the vital link between the university and industry, and the university and government, a situation that completes the government-university-industry tripartite relationship. This relationship is crucial in the provision of quality higher education in any country. To crown their qualifications, higher education institutions also take some elements from other higher education institutions across the world. What this means is that a good programme must be carefully designed before it is offered to students. A good degree programme must be benchmarked with similar offerings in higher education institutions in other parts of the world. In achieving this, high education institutions will be fulfilling another requirement, that of the internationalisation of the curriculum. Internationalisation in higher education is “the process of integrating an international, intercultural, or global dimension into the purpose, functions or delivery of post-secondary education” (Knight, 2004, p. 11). It is now a cliché to say ‘we live in global village’ since it is an undeniable fact that the borders of our countries have been virtually removed and we are one family. Higher education institutions are therefore tasked with designing curricula that produce global citizens. These are citizens who are able to survive and work in other parts of the world, away from their home countries. However, internationalisation of the curriculum needs to be done carefully. With clamours for decolonising the curriculum from African university students, it would not be acceptable to shroud African identity in the name of internationalisation of the curriculum.

In all this quality of higher education business, governments play a regulatory role. National authorities of quality assurance enforce quality through the accreditation of qualifications. Institutions are required to meet set standards in all their qualifications in order to provide quality and relevant education to students. Using the powers vested in them, the regulations authorities assist institutions to design qualifications that conform to the requirements of the frameworks.

As for institutions, it is mandatory to cultivate a culture of quality assurance once the baseline standards have been met. Developing a culture of quality assurance is a process which begins in the structures within institutions. The culture of quality assurance develops over time. The roles management, academic and non-academic play are all important in the development of a quality assurance culture in an institution. Effective quality assurance mechanisms in universities maintain and reinforce quality education. There are also external quality assurance mechanisms which national authorities and universities use to ensure that quality is maintained in universities. Nowadays it is common for local authorities to bring external assessors to evaluate the adherence to quality assurance measures of institutions in their countries.

The need for a robust and quality higher education cannot be over-emphasised. This quality education must contribute to the knowledge economy and the socio-economic development of the country. Institutions must realise that there cannot be quality higher educations without fully embracing the fourth industrial revolution. In Part 2, I will discuss how students’ evaluations contribute to the provision of quality higher education.

2020-09-11  Staff Reporter

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