By Muyia Nafukho
In general, there are mainly two types of accreditation in higher education which I believe are urgently required by several public and private universities in Africa, namely institutional accreditation and professional accreditation.
Professional accreditation is normally granted by a professional body that exists to advance the profession, for example, the Nigerian Society of Engineers, the Kenya Medical Association, or the Law Society of South Africa.
Besides these two accreditation forms, we also have academic programme reviews which are conducted by experts from peer institutions with the aim of providing assessments of the progress being made based on stated shared purpose, goals, and priorities set by every academic department.
Based on higher education data from uniRank, there are currently 1,225 officially recognized higher education institutions in Africa serving a population of 1.3 billion people.
Considering that the uniRank database includes a total number of 13,723 officially recognised higher education institutions in the world, the proportion of African universities in terms of the world representation index is 8.9%. With 16.1% of the world population, Africa as a continent needs more universities. For instance, the United States with 4% of the world population has over 5,300 universities serving 331 million people, excluding international students.
A process to ensure public trust
What happens to countries the world over with so many universities? How do these institutions of higher learning maintain high standards, quality discovery and innovation programmes, and offer quality degrees and professional programmes? To answer these questions, I use some examples from the US which could be adapted to develop the culture of university accreditation aimed at ensuring the quality of programmes offered in African universities.
In the US, with over 5,300 universities, the country is divided into seven regions as a strategy to manage the accreditation process. According to the Higher Learning Commission the accreditation of universities is done through peer review and is organised by the seven commissions responsible for accrediting universities in each region.
The purpose of accreditation in the US is to maintain public trust by applying standards within the context of the diversity of institutional missions and by expecting all member institutions to adhere to those standards.
I use the United States example when it comes to higher education because it has been noted that if you want to learn about the best learning that goes on at the elementary level of the education system, go to Italy; at the intermediate level, go to Japan; at the high school level, go to Germany; and at the university level, go to the United States. And, if you want to learn about the best way to prepare school teachers, go to Finland.
This means that in each of these countries, we need to discover what is being done correctly at each of the levels of education. Educationists, funding agencies, policymakers and practitioners now agree that we can adapt, scale up or replicate success programmes from one country or one region of the world to another, while paying attention to the unique contexts of each region.
Facilitate institutional peer reviews
In Africa for instance, there is the Tanzanian Commission for Universities, and the same applies to several countries in Africa. The university commissions have a team of experts who review and approve the registration of universities.
In addition, they review curricula and ensure that academic standards are maintained. While both public and private universities in Africa use the external reviewers’ examination system, the commissions of university education or similar structures should facilitate the institutional peer review processes.
Thus the peer review goes beyond assessment and also focuses on issues such as availability of learning resources, student to teacher ratios, degree completion rates, the quality of instructors, diversity, equity and inclusion, and the quality of instruction processes. This is even more urgent during this COVID-19 era, as various models of teaching and learning are being practiced such as face-to-face learning, online learning, remote learning and hyflex learning.
The accreditation standards should be revised periodically by the organs such as commissions of university education. Thus the accreditation process should not only focus on resources, structures and processes but should also focus on accountability and improved student learning outcomes. In addition, issues pertaining to the financial stability of the university, multiple campuses or off-site campuses, faculty credentials, curricula offered, and governance structures should be reviewed.
To help parents and prospective students determine which universities are credible, the accreditation process should be supported by the faculty, university administrators, community stakeholders, and governments.
Student learning should be emphasised
According to the Higher Learning Commission in the US, accreditation of universities should help to promote principles of good practice such as the centrality of student learning in the universities’ missions, the documentation of student learning, the compilation of evidence on courses offered, curricula, collaborations and partnerships, co-curricular activities, and engagement of community stakeholders.
The accreditation process should put emphasis on issues like the centrality of student learning in accreditation, evidence of student learning, forms of appropriate evidence, improvement of student learning and training of peer reviewers in the skills required for effective accreditation practice, and the need to operate within the established principles of good practice.
Given the enormous amount of both public and private resources invested in higher education, all efforts must be made to reform universities in Africa to generate knowledge workers urgently required in transforming economies and people’s lives.
In the case of Kenya for instance, it is no surprise the Commission for University Education is recommending major reforms in the operation of public universities such as the need to revise the curricula, the need to address the duplication of courses, and the need to develop quality standards for online, remote and hyflex learning models.
Professional bodies should get involved
Every discipline offered within universities should include faculty membership of a professional association to guide and enhance appropriate learning, growth and development.
Taking global examples, African university faculties should enjoy professional development financially supported by their institution. Instead of individual universities hosting annual conferences, professional associations such as the Historical Association of Kenya, the Law Society of South Africa, and the Ghana Institution of Engineering should have annual conferences where research and scholar-practitioner papers are presented and published as peer-reviewed conference proceedings.
Why peer? Because when it comes to learning, you cannot run alone and be successful; you will never know how much progress you have made in learning until a peer corrects you. It is a truism that organisations and societies that have made advancement in their fields have relied on peer review processes.
Peers could review what universities profess
Academic programme reviews and professional accreditation are critical to the success of students seeking quality education offered by various degree and professional programmes. Every degree or certificate programme offered at university level should undergo external peer academic programme review and-or seek appropriate accreditation in the case of professionally-based degree programmes.
Thus, professional accreditation and periodic external academic programme reviews ensure that academic programmes engage in self-reflection. Leaders, faculty and staff learn from academic peer review and use this feedback to continuously improve and offer excellent and transformative academic and research programmes.
The era when universities in Africa used to argue that they are autonomous is coming to an end. There is no monopoly on knowledge and expertise, hence the need to allow peers to review universities and to critically and positively examine what we profess as professionals dedicated to transforming the lives of our students, communities and society at large.
Fredrick Muyia Nafukho is professor of educational administration and human resource development and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Education and Human Development, Texas A&M University, United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.