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‘We are not moribund’ – Council on Higher Education responds to Adam Habib and Shirona Patel

By N Themba Mosia 12 November 2020

The Great Hall at University of the Witwatersrand. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

The chairperson of the Council on Higher Education responds to a Daily Maverick article by Prof Adam Habib and Shirona Patel of Wits University, which accused the council of stymying a rapid transition to online learning because of ‘its laborious and ineffective processes’.

It is with some reluctance that we find ourselves having to respond to the article authored by outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Wits, Professor Adam Habib and his communications manager, Shirona Patel (“Moribund Council on Higher Education is immobilising academic agility”, Daily Maverick, 4 November 2020).

Like all other universities and private higher education providers, Wits is a stakeholder in the Council on Higher Education (CHE), that we regularly engage with about the discharge of our work as a statutory quality council for higher education in South Africa.

The fact we find ourselves having to reply on a popular news platform against such a stakeholder is not ideal, but we have to respond because we believe that it is prudent to correct this misinformation from the source. We can only hope that the article was written in their personal capacities and not reflecting Wits University, which remains an important stakeholder for the CHE.

Operating in an intellectual space, as it does, the CHE believes in freedom of intellectual thought and expression. One of its strategic objectives is to stimulate public discourses that inform transformation of the higher education system, for the benefit of our people and the country. Ordinarily, therefore, the CHE would view the article as part of the public discourses that it encourages.

Much to the disappointment of the CHE, the article by Habib and Patel is littered with what we can describe as “fictions”. It does not present a true or balanced view on the matter. Granted that the authors are entitled to their views and opinions on and about the CHE, however, portraying the CHE as “moribund” on the basis of misrepresented facts is, at the very least, mischievous, unfortunate and deplorable.   

The CHE takes its mandate seriously and it is making every effort to fulfil it in the most effective and efficient manner. This is attested to by successive clean audits by the Auditor-General of South Africa. It is true that the accreditation of educational programmes by the CHE has over the past three years taken longer than usual. However, higher education institutions are fully aware of the reasons for this, which have nothing to do with the CHE being “moribund”, as alleged.

Rather, it has more to do with the onerous process of aligning all higher education programmes to the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework, as required by legislation, and the high volume of new programmes that institutions submitted to replace those not aligned to the framework. The CHE has successfully processed all these applications and cleared the backlog. The complaints from the article are therefore outdated, and we wonder if Prof Habib and Ms Patel are aware of this?   

Through the CHE’s own internal quality review and based on the feedback from institutions, a new quality assurance framework is being finalised. A few institutions have requested that the implementation date for the new framework be brought forward. However, the CHE has to develop its own online systems and new processes, as well as build capacity in all institutions of higher learning around their internal quality assurance systems to respond to the new framework. All institutions, without exception, will benefit from the planned capacity development programme. Collaboration with the Department of Higher Education and Training, the South African Qualifications Authority, as well as the professional bodies is part of the new process. Some of the changes will be introduced from 2021; the details of which have been shared with all institutions.

It is common knowledge that the shift to emergency online learning, teaching and assessment has not been a systematically planned and implemented process. There are many reports – from students, academic staff members, professional bodies, institutional managements and the education department – that point out the serious quality challenges and a number of other disadvantages that this shift has created for students.

These challenges are best summarised by the secretary-general of the SRC at Wits, Katie Morgets, who in May 2020 explained to SABC News that:

“A lot of students are complaining about the amount in terms of the workload that they have been receiving from the university – premised on the notion that under the circumstances, this situation is different. We find ourselves in varying living conditions, we find ourselves plagued by very different socioeconomic circumstances…

“Another thing that we have found is that even though the university has empowered students with data, there are some students who live in remote areas where there is inadequate access to a proper network connection. Thus, they are not able to actively partake in the online sessions. It has led to a rise in anxiety, a rise in mental health issues to a point where students feel that maybe the best option for them is to deregister from the institution and to try at a later stage.”

Despite these protestations by many students, with a prominent voice emerging from Wits University, the CHE nonetheless granted a concession to universities to offer all programmes accredited for the contact mode to be offered online and that this concession will continue to apply for 2021. The granting of such a concession surely does not reflect a moribund regulatory body that is insensitive to the plight of the institutions, preventing them from responding with agility, or hindering students from accessing their programmes online? Such baseless allegations are unbecoming an institution that has required, requested and been provided with immense support from the accreditation directorate of the CHE during the alignment of its programmes.

The recommendation made in the article that institutions that demonstrate strong internal quality assurance systems be given responsibility for the approval of their own programmes and qualifications is not the novel idea of Prof Habib or Ms Patel. The idea comes directly from the CHE’s strategic discussions held with the sector in 2018. This same idea is articulated in the new quality assurance framework, and this ought to have been acknowledged by the authors as such and not to have represented it as their own.

In the new external quality assurance regime of the CHE, institutions will conduct their own external peer review process of new and existing qualifications and programmes. The CHE will assess the rigour of the internal quality assurance mechanisms of the institutions and provide capacity development and support, where necessary. The higher education institutions will submit their qualification details to the CHE, and upload their programme reviews on to the CHE’s online system. In terms of legislative requirements, the CHE has to recommend the accredited qualifications to the education department and qualifications authority for registration.

Finally, Prof Adam Habib is aware that credible qualifications must undergo a rigorous quality assurance process in order to protect students from institutions that offer programmes of inferior quality. DM

Prof N Themba Mosia is Chairperson of the Council on Higher Education.

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