Op-Ed

Moribund Council on Higher Education is immobilising academic agility

By Adam Habib and Shirona Patel 4 November 2020

The Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand. The global Covid emergency has condensed the long-term blended learning plans of many universities from years to months. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

South African universities have responded nimbly and with agility to the challenges posed by Covid-19, taking courses online and into blended formats. But quality assurance entities like the Council on Higher Education cannot keep up, immobilising the system and hindering the ability of more students to access online education.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced universities to respond with agility in a complex environment; to develop academic content, courses and programmes that can be delivered online; to adapt pedagogies for remote and emergency teaching and learning; to upskill and retool academics and students so that they are empowered to participate in learning and teaching in an online mode; to adopt new technologies and learning management systems; to distribute devices nationally and provide access to data; and to explore multimodal educational approaches across various platforms.

In effect, the global emergency has condensed the long-term blended learning plans of many universities from years to months. Take Wits, for example – it took all of three weeks for the institution to pivot from being a contact university to taking the majority of academic programmes online.

However, while universities are responding nimbly, quality assurance entities like the Council on Higher Education cannot keep up, thus immobilising the system, and hindering the ability of more students to access online education.

These systemic challenges existed well before the arrival of Covid-19, though they have been compounded by the contagion. The Council on Higher Education has always had a long backlog due to its cumbersome administrative procedures and budgetary and staffing constraints.

About 18 months ago, at a national conference hosted by Universities South Africa, given the incapacity and incapability of the Council on Higher Education to timeously review, approve and accredit educational  programmes, Wits proposed an alternative for the way in which academic programmes are accredited. Wits put forward that reputable universities that had the requisite skills, talent, qualifications, infrastructure, governance systems, resources and other necessary requirements be accredited at the institutional level with representatives from peer universities playing an oversight role.

For example, Wits has a rigorous internal system for the approval of a course or programme which starts at the level of the academic who develops the content. This proposal for the new academic offering is vetted by the school or department before being elevated to the faculty level, where it is again scrutinised. If it passes, it must be approved by the Academic Planning and Quality Office before serving at a subcommittee of Senate, being approved at Senate, and noted at Council.

We cannot limit access to higher education because of moribund regulatory agencies.

Don’t get us wrong – quality assurance is essential in order to ensure that we offer students the best education of a high global standard, and that is locally relevant. We cannot compromise on excellence and standards if we are to participate in the global knowledge economy, if we are to resolve local challenges, and if we are to move South Africa forward. But just how this accreditation and quality assurance takes place should be up for debate. We can no longer be held to ransom by a failing regulatory system that is effectively depriving students of higher education.

Universities are mandated to generate new knowledge, to develop high-level and professional skills for the workplace and society and to advance the public good. It is also our duty to provide access to quality higher education that has the power to transform the lives of students and their families. Now, more than ever, we have the ability to combine our academic expertise with the relevant learning management systems and new technologies to offer pedagogically sound online courses and programmes and, in so doing, create access to education for more people – a social justice imperative for the nation.

We have multiple opportunities to collaborate with local and international partners in the academic, public and private sectors on shifting to digital platforms to offer online courses and programmes, but these are being stymied by the Council on Higher Education, and its laborious and ineffective processes. 

In its founding document in 2000, the Council on Higher Education stated its intention to move from accrediting every programme of every institution to accrediting institutions – this is standard practice in many countries. Centralised programme accreditation was seen as necessary at the turn of the century while the higher education system was largely being reshaped. In 2020, it is no longer necessary.

In 2017 the Council on Higher Education held public consultations about its intended plan to accredit institutions. Earlier this year, it sent out a draft of its Integrated Quality Assurance Framework (which includes institutional accreditation) for comment. But the Council on Higher Education indicated that the timescale for implementation of this plan is three years. This means that our institutions of higher learning are bound in red tape and that the state is paralysing our ability to be responsive and innovative for at least the next three years.

We cannot limit access to higher education because of moribund regulatory agencies.

We cannot allow universities to be held to ransom because the Council on Higher Education stymies the system.

We cannot remain silent and allow this malaise to continue at the expense of depriving students from accessing education.

It is imperative for the government to urgently release universities with strong internal quality assurance systems from the injunction to have every online programme accredited by the Council on Higher Education. The Council is unable to respond in real time to the needs of universities, especially under emergency conditions. Universities are ready to respond to the historical challenges of the moment but need to be freed to deliver to the nation.

We have been patient for too long and we are confident that many higher education leaders will join in the call for these bureaucratic processes to be amended and for universities to be empowered to do what they do best. DM

Professor Adam Habib is vice-chancellor and principal of Wits University and Shirona Patel is coordinator of the Wits Advancement Division.

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