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The poor quality of higher education in sub-Saharan Africa has been the subject of many articles, reports and papers in recent years. The situation, which was perhaps at its worst at the beginning of the 21st century, has significantly improved; but more, much more remains to be done.

The reasons for poor quality are known: large enrolment of students beyond the carrying capacity of the institutions; acute lack of funding in public institutions; severe shortage of qualified faculty; poor governance; internal, institutional inefficiency; inadequate linkages with the productive sector; and a proliferation of private, for-profit providers. The consequences are equally known: inadequate and crumbling infrastructure; programs, departments and even institutions that fail to be nationally accredited; large unemployment of graduates; abysmally poor research output; and, ultimately, higher education institutions being unable to contribute to the development of Africa.

There have been several initiatives undertaken at institutional, national, regional and continental levels over the past decade or so to redress the situation. Several universities, for example, have made huge efforts to raise funds, to upgrade the qualifications of their faculty, to encourage research and even to set up an internal quality assurance system. At national level, countries are setting up quality assurance agencies for accrediting institutions and their programs. A couple of regional bodies have been able to attract donor funding to support quality assurance initiatives. And, at continental level, the African Union Commission has launched several projects for quality improvement as part of its higher education harmonization strategy, in particular its African Quality Rating Mechanism (AQRM), which encourages institutions to undertake a self-assessment of their activities against set standards.

Yet, these initiatives have had, with a few exceptions, limited impact on improving quality in higher education. There are several reasons for this. First, almost all of them have been dependent on donor funding over a limited period, and once the project ends and the funds stop, the initiative becomes unsustainable. So lack of funding is a serious constraint. Second, many of them are disparate and uncoordinated and do not involve all the key stakeholders at national or regional level. Third, there is a general lack of knowledge about the quality assurance process. This lack of capacity applies to both the institutions and the national quality assurance agencies, and few countries have developed standards and guidelines for quality assurance. Fourth, there is no experience in properly evaluating private or transnational institutions, or postgraduate programs, or open and distance learning institutions, all of which are rapidly growing in Africa.  

However, two new initiatives have just been launched which could, in the long term, make a difference. Although they have the same objective of improving quality, they adopt two very different approaches.

The first one is the ‘Harmonization of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation’ or HAQAA. It is funded by the European Union (EU) and forms part of the Joint Africa-EU Strategy, which was adopted in 2007 and which provides a framework for long-term cooperation between Africa and Europe on identified, mutual and complementary interests. The idea is for Africa to develop a quality assurance and accreditation model which is specific to the continent but which uses the experiences of Europe. It is a three-year project which started in December 2015. The objectives include: the development of the Pan-African Quality Assurance and Accreditation system; enhancing regional collaboration in quality assurance and among regional networks; capacity building in internal and external quality assurance at the institutional, national and regional level; and promoting good practices and sharing experiences between Europe and Africa. The partners of the project are the European University Association, the Association of African Universities (AAU), the European Association of Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the University of Barcelona, Spain. In many ways, HAQAA will build on past quality assurance initiatives in Africa and attempt to address some of the challenges experienced in implementing and sustaining them.

The second new initiative is the ‘Benchmarking of African Universities’, which is being developed by the World Bank as part of its project on ‘Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology’, or PASET.  PASET, launched by the World Bank in 2013, supports Africa’s socio-economic transformation by promoting the building of technical and scientific skills over the whole spectrum of education. Benchmarking is not really a quality assurance or accreditation tool but complements it and is perhaps the more appropriate alternative to global ranking for African universities.  

The main objective of the Benchmarking initiative is to improve the quality and relevance of African universities by comparing data and performance indicators of one institution with others. A pilot benchmarking exercise involving seven African universities was first undertaken in 2014 with the assistance of Shanghai Jiao Tong University of China, the same university that first started global ranking. Based on the positive outcome of that pilot study, it was decided to extend it to a larger number of universities. A major workshop was held in November 2015, co-organized with the AAU, where participants from a wide range of higher education stakeholders discussed the appropriate methodology and indicators to be used. Subsequently, universities and quality assurance agencies from all over Africa have been invited to participate in the next phase by submitting the relevant institutional data. These will be analyzed and discussed at a forthcoming workshop in June 2016 and a roadmap for the next phase established, which will invariably include, initially, capacity building in benchmarking in universities and quality assurance agencies. What is interesting with this initiative is that it encourages universities to collect and compile institutional data, vital for strategic planning but which not many of them actually do effectively. 

These two new initiatives complement each other and, if successfully implemented, should bring about marked quality improvement in African higher education. 

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