02 October 2023 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Leonie Bolleurs
SAAIR Conference
Pictured at the recent Southern African Association for Institutional Research (SAAIR) Quality Forum are, from the left: Prof Francois Strydom, Senior Director of the UFS Centre for Teaching and Learning; Dr Whitfield Green, CEO of the Council on Higher Education; Dr Rosaline Sebolao, UFS Teaching and Learning Manager in the Faculty of The Humanities; Dr Britta Zawada, Director of Institutional Audits and QAF at the Council on Higher Education; and Thandeka Mosholi, Acting Director of Academic Planning and Quality Assurance at the UFS.

The University of the Free State (UFS), together with the Southern African Association for Institutional Research (SAAIR), hosted the SAAIR Quality Forum 2023 from 27 to 29 September. This event not only provided participants with a platform for collaborative engagement on quality-related issues to improve planning, management, and decision-making within institutions and in the sector, but also the opportunity to effectively prepare for the new Quality Assurance Framework (QAF). 

Delegates from South Africa and Namibia attended the event.

A new era for higher education

In her opening and welcome address, Dr Engela van Staden, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the UFS, began by stating the importance of higher education entering a new era. “QAF is a very important mechanism that we will have to apply to measure the quality of what is going to happen in the higher education system.”

“The process that lies ahead of us needs to be understood, because as quality practitioners, data analysts, and strategic planners, you will be steering the ship in terms of what will happen. It is very important that you demonstrate leadership within your institutions. As stated by SAAIR President, Liile Lekena, ‘what you have learned here must be taken back to your institution, because that is how you implement change’.”

“It is very important that you understand the implications of a QAF. You have to understand what it means for your institutions. The implementation of a quality framework in your institutions has certain requirements.”

“Your planning will determine your readiness to embrace the QAF. Also, your processes, procedures, and policies need to speak to this QAF. You cannot have a framework on a higher level and the policy in your institution does not correspond to that framework. Then you have a disarray. There are a lot of disjunctions in our system because we have higher education policies, but institutions are not aligned to them or do not respond to them. We don’t want this to happen with this framework.”

In terms of governance, Dr Van Staden said that institutions must have structures and people that are compliant and adhere to governance. “There are risks. For institutions to identify the risks is responsible, because it speaks to your accountability for quality,” said Dr Van Staden.

“This SAAIR quality institute is ideally placed to provide guidance to help us think through these issues,” she said. 

Elaborate policing versus a culture of Ubuntu

Speaking on behalf of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and delivering the keynote address, was Dr Whitfield Green, the Chief Executive Officer of CHE. His presentation focused on the implementation of the new Quality Assurance Framework for higher education in South Africa.

In his presentation, Dr Green touched on the pervasive audit culture that underpins quality assurance. “The audit culture conflates accountability with accountancy and may be viewed as an elaborate form of policing. Such an audit culture, however, can lead to 'concealing behaviour', where data is deliberatively concealed to make institutions appear to have 'good quality' and compliance rather than genuine accountability. The audit culture also carries the risk of alienating everyday academics, as they may feel that it devalues their everyday practices. If quality assurance is seen as a top-down practice that expects mindless conformity, conflicts may arise between quality assurance efforts and academics,” he explained.

He remarked that the CHE is heading in a new direction, underpinned by a philosophy of Ubuntu. “We need a new approach, a South African way of doing Ubuntu. We are not machines, but humans who need to engage in humane ways in our quality process,” he said. 

“Can we reimagine quality assurance as stewardship rather than policing and will this approach result in a greater and more lasting positive impact on quality in higher education?” he asked. In this new approach, characteristics such as development and support are introduced instead of accountability; being generative and reflexive instead of prescriptive; partnership and collaboration instead of independence and objectivity; and a differentiated approach rather than a uniform approach. 

The new language in this new approach will include a vocabulary containing words such as partnership, difference, trust, community, consultative, to mention but a few. 

In the differentiated approach, institutions will demonstrate different levels of quality and the CHE will engage differently with each institution. “There will, however, still be levels of accountability and a place for intense capacity development,” he said. 

“In terms of the new Quality Assurance Framework, institutions need to become fully familiar with the QAF, ensuring that understanding permeates all levels and components of the institution. Institutions should also actively participate in the range of capacity development initiatives that will be rolled out. Moreover, institutions need to ensure that the standards are fully integrated within their systems. It is also key that institutions take responsibility for quality by investing in building internal quality assurance capacity,” concluded Dr Green. 

Discussions at the SAAIR had a strong focus on QAF implementation, delving into aspects such as expectations and their alignment with existing practices. Institutions also exchanged various approaches for QAF implementation and alignment. Additionally, the discussions explored the resource requirements for effective QAF implementation within institutions. Furthermore, delegates emphasised both the advantages and current barriers associated with implementing the QAF in HEIs.

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