Student Quality Literacy and Empowerment


The knowledge economy and other contemporary realities in developed countries have underlined the importance of higher education institutions as agents for socio-economic transmission and transformation in the 21st century. Most of these institutions have dramatically increased their participation rate to 20%, while others are aspiring for 40%. Developing countries are also attempting to increase their participation rates in order to participate more effectively globally. An increased demand is a worldwide tendency in higher education.

This demand has been met with an increased supply by means of the development of new information technologies, growth of public and private provision and increased cross- and trans-border provision of higher education. This has widened access to and choice of higher education institutions and programmes. However, the demand also increased the risk of students being exposed to poor quality higher education. Many so-called 'fly by night' institutions or 'degree mills' have emerged, which capitalise on the demand for higher education.

The situation is aggravated by the concomitant problem of student illiteracy about higher education. False claims are often made about institutions, the quality of their programmes and their accreditation status, to which ill-informed students fall prey. There is a need for students to be empowered in order to evaluate the accuracy of claims and to make informed decisions about institutions and programmes. Students need to know what constitutes quality higher education institutions and quality programmes. Apart from students, quality literacy is also becoming increasingly important for employers and the general public.

The UNESCO brief for this paper includes:

  1. A desktop study mapping of existing tools for informing students on quality on higher education provision worldwide.

  2. A strategy for developing tools for empowering students to make informed decisions to evaluate the learning experiences offered by higher education level. This strategy should include key questions concerning the learning experience and status of the institution and lessons learnt from the experiences of South Africa in developing quality literacy for students.

This study will propose a possible framework for developing quality literacy among potential and other students in South African higher education. The framework is informed by approaches and strategies which have been successfully implemented in some other countries. The study has certain limitations. It has been largely restricted to a desktop search via the Internet and only English websites were searched. Examples include little information directly from higher education institutions, but all full members of the International Network for Quality assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) have been approached for information and analyses have been made of some articles and manuals. Apart from this, quality literacy has until recently not directly formed part of the author's responsibilities at the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) in South Africa.

Defining Quality Literacy and Empowerment

br> Quality literacy and empowerment builds to a large extent on the ability to effectively deal with information, i.e. information literacy. According to Norgaard (2003), information literacy is geared towards accessing, evaluating and using information within larger cultural, historical, social, economic and political systems. It should not be seen as a reductive function or in performance terms, but more as a skill, whether in the library or on the Internet. A robust sense of information literacy has at the heart evaluative and integrative concerns, i.e. how we judge and evaluate information and integrates it into effective communication. One can, therefore, argue that in order for students to access and make judgements about information about quality, they need to have a proper understanding of information literacy.

First-time student entrants need to make informed decisions about the quality of institutions and programmes, which entails an evaluation of the available information. Is the information about institutions, programmes and quality assurance agencies reliable, accurate and legitimate? Is the institution legitimate or a 'degree and accreditation mill'? How can one know whether a programme is of a good quality and not a just a quick money-making scheme?

It is crucial for students to acquire quality literacy skills to access, evaluate and use information about quality in order to make informed decisions about the choice of an institution and/or programme. Quality literacy for students entails the following aspects:

  1. Awareness of how the higher education institution and programmes work.

  2. Understanding what can be expected of a quality higher education institution and programme.

  3. Using quality related information to inform judgements and decisions about the quality of an institution and/or programme.

  4. Knowing how student opinion can best be heard and used in respect of the quality of institutions and programmes.

Quality empowerment entails the concept of agency - the ability not only to participate in but also to shape education. The quality of teaching and learning, for example, is shaped by engagements between the lecturer and the student. Students are equally responsible to shape the quality of their learning experiences. Empowered students have the ability not only to make the correct choices with regard to institutions and programmes, but also to play a positive role in promoting and enhancing the quality of education processes and outcomes.