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The Higher Education Act of 1997 assigns responsibility for quality assurance in higher education in South Africa to the Council on Higher Education (CHE). This responsibility is discharged through its permanent sub-committee, the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC). The mandate of the HEQC includes quality promotion, institutional audit and programme accreditation. As part of the task of building an effective national quality assurance system, the HEQC has also included capacity development and training as a critical component of its programme of activities.
The HEQC’s quality assurance mandate is carried out within the framework of the Regulations for Education and Training Quality Assurers (ETQAs) of the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), which has overall responsibility for overseeing standard setting and quality assurance in support of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).
Institutional audit is a form of quality assurance which is practiced in many countries and is usually associated with purposes of quality improvement and enhancement. In common with higher education systems in many parts of the world, South African higher education faces multiple stakeholder demands for greater responsiveness to societal needs through enhanced student access and mobility; through research and innovation that address social and economic development; and through engagement with local, regional and international communities of interest. Stakeholders also require that higher education institutions are able to provide the public with comprehensive information on the manner in which they maintain the quality and standards of their core academic activities, and to demonstrate sustained improvement in this regard. Institutional audits serve to address both sets of issues.
The HEQC’s approach to institutional audit is strongly shaped by the complex challenges facing higher education institutions in an era of radical restructuring within South African higher education. The audit system seeks to be responsive to as well as proactive in advancing the objectives of higher education transformation, as reflected in various policy and legislative documents that have been published since 1994. Ensuring that improved and sustainable quality is part of the transformation objectives of higher education institutions is, therefore, a fundamental premise of the HEQC’s approach to quality assurance in general and to institutional audits in particular.
In line with the vision of the White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education for a single, coordinated higher education system, this document sets out a common institutional audit policy framework for universities, technikons / universities of technology,1agricultural colleges, private providers and other providers whose programmes and qualifications fall under the jurisdiction of the HEQC. The specific needs and circumstances of different sectors within higher education will be taken into account within the parameters of the common policy framework. The principles, criteria and procedures for institutional audit have been developed on the basis of extensive comparative research and pilot tests, and in consultation with key stakeholders in the higher education community.
In the first audit cycle, which will run from 2004 to 2009, the HEQC will focus primarily on institutional arrangements for assuring quality in the core areas of teaching and learning, research and community engagement. Within each of these areas, specific aspects are singled out for evaluation against the requirements of the HEQC’s audit criteria. Institutional responsibility for credible self-evaluation and sustained improvement remains at the heart of the HEQC’s institutional audit system.
During the first cycle, the implementation of the audit system will be monitored closely and appropriate adjustments made, where necessary. A case in point is the provision made for institutions that are presently engaged in merger and restructuring processes to undergo audits only during the second half of the first audit cycle, thus allowing them sufficient time to prepare for the requirements of institutional audit. The HEQC will also take into account policy requirements in higher education which are still evolving.
Dr Mala Singh
Executive Director, Higher Education Quality Committee, CHE