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The Quality Enhancement Project (QEP) is a five-year project of the CHE, focused on the improvement of teaching and learning in both public and private higher education institutions carried out in parallel processes.This publication is a synthesis of the public universities’ current achievements, activities and challenges in four particular focus areas related to teaching and learning, based on information that they have submitted. Given that the project is still in its early phases, this publication is a snapshot of the current situation in these areas, a starting point in a process that is still evolving, rather than an evaluation or summative assessment. In this first phase of the QEP, institutions have reported on what they currently have in place, what they have achieved and what challenges they face with respect to: enhancing academics as teachers, student support and development, the learning environment and course and programme enrolment management. These are prerequisites for good teaching and learning. In their next submissions, having considered these areas and undertaken some action towards improvement where necessary, universities will report on progress made in these particular areas and receive feedback at an individual institutional level. In the second phase of the project, the focus is likely to shift to teaching and learning itself rather than the conditions that enable it – curriculum, pedagogy, delivery – though in an inductive process this will be informed by the input of the institutions themselves.
The QEP is a bold initiative. It follows on from the comprehensive decade-long programme of institutional audits by the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) of the CHE in which universities’, and a number of private higher education institutions’, capacities to assure their quality in three core areas, research, teaching and learning and community engagement, were assessed. That process followed methodology commonly used by quality assurance agencies, that is, self-evaluation followed by peer assessment, with reports that included recommendations for improvement, and the monitoring of progress towards their implementation. The process was rigorous, evidence-based and informed by a common set of criteria applied across all institutions. Given that institutions were audited sequentially, the process allowed for intense engagement with each institution and an examination of its policies, processes and procedures in relation to managing the quality of its core functions across a wide-ranging canvas. As in other audit processes elsewhere, the audits helped to initiate the development of quality assurance systems within institutions, put the improvement of teaching and learning on institutional agendas, reinforced institutional leaders in their efforts to develop institution-wide quality cultures,and offered visible confirmation to the public that attention is being paid to academic quality assurance(Dill, 2000). Furthermore, as many quality agencies have found, the self-evaluation report required as part of the audit process was seen by many institutions as the main benefit of the external quality procedures. This was reiterated in an external evaluation of the HEQC in 2008 in which institutions had reported that a very valuable aspect of the process was the self-evaluation exercise which had spurred on change and improvements (INQAAHE, 2006; HEQC, 2009).
The audits did indeed put teaching and learning on the agenda, but they also revealed that much work towards improving quality in teaching and learning was needed, given the context of a predominantly undergraduate higher education system with consistently poor throughput rates. In addition, an external evaluation of the HEQC in 2008 had recommended that more emphasis needed to be placed on the enhancement aspect of external quality assurance in the suite of programmes it offered. The time was thus ripe for a concerted focus on the improvement of teaching and learning in the work of the CHE. In an extensive process of rethinking and consultation towards the conclusion of the first cycle of audits, the CHE thus decided not to pursue a second cycle of quality audits immediately, but to suspend them for a period. This was partly because a number of institutions were still responding to the recommendations of the first cycle of audits and would have had little capacity to engage in a second. It was also to mitigate the risk of institutions having learnt to “play the game” and to lean towards compliance rather than to embrace the opportunity for self-reflection afforded by audits as intensely as they had in the first round. It was also because the CHE’s intensive engagements with individual institutions through audits took place infrequently, particularly where recommendations had been implemented relatively speedily. These are also, however, pragmatic reasons. Underlying the shift to a more directly enhancement-led approach was a fundamental commitment to the promise of external quality assurance in South Africa to enhance or improve quality, rather than to steer too far towards the accountability end of the spectrum of quality assurance activities. A recurrent theme in much writing on quality assurance over the last twenty years has been the tension between improvement and accountability, and a finding from many articles as summarised in a special edition of Quality in Higher Education that “quality evaluations of whatever type were not particularly good at encouraging improvement, especially when they had a strong accountability brief” (Harvey 2010b, p7). The CHE is unique as a quality agency in that it combines functions that elsewhere are often carried out by separate bodies, such as programme accreditation and national reviews of programmes, which can tend towardsthe harder end of the spectrum, as well as institutional audits and quality promotion. The balance is hard to achieve. In the Founding Document of the HEQC, the promise of balance was expressed thus:In a context where quality assurance in many countries has grown more accountabilityorientated through the shift to ‘accreditation-like’ requirements and where ‘value for money’demands on higher education have become sharper, the HEQC has sought to straddlethe ambivalent divide between accountability and development and between quality andequity. This has been done so as not to lose sight of the way in which historical legacies still shape educational provision in South Africa but also to ensure that new developments in higher education do not create new fault lines of inequality. In terms of HEQC systems,this has meant great attention to capacity development issues at the same time as the formalrequirements of audit and accreditation were being put in place (HEQC, 2004).
The formal requirements of audit and accreditation undertaken by the CHE have become well-established; the emphasis on direct improvement perhaps less so. A shift towards more effective improvement-based processes was required, particularly in a context in which the inequalities in educational provision still shape student access and success. In the HEQC’s Founding Document in 2001, it outlined its understanding of quality, drawing on the theoretical typology advanced by the work of Harvey and Green in the early 1990s which was seminal in influencing understandings of quality and quality assurance, not only in other contexts, but in the South African higher education sector as well. The aspects of quality informing the HEQC’s understanding of quality were: fitness for purpose – is the programme or institution effectively carrying out its mission and vision and achieving its goals?; fitness of purpose – is the mission, vision, or rationale for that institution or programme appropriate to its context and to achieving broader national goals?; value for money – are students receiving the education needed in the most efficient and effective way possible; and transformation, inthe sense of developing the capabilities of individual learners for personal enrichment, as well as the requirements of social development andeconomic and employment growth (HEQC, 2004). The last-mentioned aspect is perhaps the most relevant; it recognises that quality is not necessarily related to set standards, but is relative to context and purpose. To improve quality, we need to go deeper. Having learnt of the challenges in teaching and learning through audits, we need to get beyond the quality management systems to engage with the improvement of actual quality in teaching and learning and to have more sustained engagements with institutions in focused areas that are pertinent to such improvement. Drawing on the suggestion of Dill (1995) that quality assurance policies are more effective in contributing to improvement when they foster the development of ‘social capital’, both within and between academic institutions, the QEP was developed as a considered response to this challenge. This publication is intended for use by institutions as they go about taking action to improve in particular focus areas and to inform their next submissions. The initial submissions of institutions are available on the CHE website for reference purposes. By the end of the second phase of the QEP, a number of areas related to teaching and learning will have been considered in a holistic way in an effort to improve our students’ chances of access with success. The work herein represents a start in the QEP journey towards a more equitable, effective, transformative and successful undergraduate experience for our students.
Dr Denyse Webbstock