The South African higher education landscape experienced seismic shifts during the 2015/16 year and was a testing time for all. Towards the end of the 2015 academic year the #FeesMustFall movement rocked the university sector in unprecedented ways reminiscent of the biblical “David and Goliath” when an underdog challenged a giant. Sustained student protests, violence, destruction of property and postponement of examinations changed the character of the higher education system as we knew it. Although the crisis was resolved with the 0% increase in tuition and other fees for 2016, one of the primary concerns of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) as a Quality Council was the serious risk placed on the integrity of our assessment practices and the quality of our academic programmes at certain institutions of higher learning. The CHE condemned acts of violence, intolerance and encouraged all stakeholders to find amicable ways of resolving conflicts in their respective campuses.
The CHE nonetheless looks back on a productive and fulfilling year. It was my first full year at the helm for the new Council, which was appointed in December 2014. Committees of Council were both enriched and refreshed by the new Council members and the other external experts who were appointed to serve on them. The energy and commitment demonstrated by the members in the meetings of Council and its committees gave me a great sense of satisfaction that Council takes its fiduciary and general governance responsibilities seriously.
Another significant change was that Professor John Mubangizi took over the chairmanship of the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC), the permanent committee of Council. He was a member of the HEQC for three years before being appointed chairperson, and therefore has the requisite understanding of the intricacies and rigours of the work of the HEQC. Council furthermore appointed four new members of the HEQC to replace those whose terms had lapsed. The four are all prominent professionals within the higher education sector; and together bring the desired breadth and depth to the pool of expertise on the HEQC.
There was also a change in personnel in the top management of the organisation. Prof. Narend Baijnath was appointed the new Chief Executive Officer of the CHE, and assumed his duties on 1 October 2015. He took over from Dr Denyse Webbstock who held the position in an acting capacity for seven months, following the departure of the former CEO at the end of February 2015. I heartily welcome Prof. Baijnath to the CHE family and wish him well in his new role. In the same breath, I thank Dr Webbstock for holding the fort so ably while the search for the new CEO was conducted.
The strategy of the CHE remained the constant that galvanised all role players, old and new, amid the changes that were taking place, as alluded to above. The strategy seeks to give effect to the legislated mandate of the CHE as enunciated in both the Higher Education Act (Act No. 101 of 1997), as amended, and the National Qualifications Framework Act (Act No. 67 of 2008); within a governance framework that is based on the dictates of the Public Finance Management Act (Act No. 1 of 1999), as amended, and the relevant Treasury regulations. The strategy further seeks to locate the activities of the CHE within the broader context of national priorities and imperatives as articulated in national strategic policy frameworks and/or plans; including the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training of 2013, the National Development Plan 2030, the Human Resource Development Strategy for South Africa 2010 – 2030, the National Skills Development Strategy III, and the Presidential Outcomes 5.1 (Higher Education and Training); to list but a few. The transformation agenda of the higher education system remains crucial to the mandate of the CHE. The 2nd Higher Education Summit convened by Minister BE Nzimande saw all higher education stakeholders gathering in Durban to navigate the contemporary transformation issues. The event culminated in a Charter adopted by representatives of all substantive formations/ organizations and heads of institutions. The CHE contributed by presenting a paper on transformation during the proceedings of the Summit.
Guided by such a mandate-driven and nationally-contextualised strategy, the CHE continued in 2015/16 to perform well and deliver in its key functional areas. Five book publications, which include one on the review of higher education spanning the two decades of democracy, were produced during the year in fulfilment of a part of the CHE mandate that requires the CHE to publish, on a regular basis, information about developments in higher education.
During the year under review, the process of aligning the more than 10 000 existing higher education programmes to the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF) was pleasingly completed a year ahead of schedule. Similarly, the process of developing standards for five higher education qualifications was completed. These are now standards in place for the Master of Business Administration (MBA), Bachelor of Laws (LLB), Bachelor of Social Work (BSW), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng), and Diploma in Engineering (Dip Eng). Standards development for four other qualifications were also initiated.
Good progress was made during 2015/16 in the area of collecting data on student enrolment and achievement from private higher education institutions through the Higher Education Quality Committee Information System (HEQCIS). The percentage of institutions that have loaded at least one data set onto the system has remained constant at 99%.
Although the first cycle of institutional audits was completed in mid-2011, there was ongoing monitoring of those institutions that were still in the process of implementing the recommendations flowing from their audit reports. Planning commenced to reintroduce institutional audits across the higher education sector, including private higher education providers. Institutional audits are a legislated mandate of the CHE. They provide institutions of higher learning, the Department of Higher Education and Training and the public with the necessary information on the quality assurance mechanisms of institutions and are aimed at improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the higher education system.
The accreditation of new programmes for public universities and private higher education institutions remained one of the CHE’s key activities in fulfilment of its quality assurance function. During the year under review, 483 applications for the accreditation of new programmes were received. Current operational procedures dictate that applications received in one financial year may only come to be considered by the HEQC in the following financial year. During 2015/16, as many as 424 applications for the accreditation of new programmes were processed and adjudicated on by the HEQC. During the same year, 129 applications for the re-accreditation of programmes of private higher education institutions were processed and the HEQC decided on them.
National Reviews serve as another key quality assurance mechanism that is employed to ensure that programmes offered by higher education institutions in any particular field meet minimum standards. During the year under review, the National Reviews Framework was revised to link the review process to standards. There was also ongoing monitoring of the Social Work programmes at institutions that are still in the process of implementing the recommendations flowing from the reports of the review of Bachelor of Social Work programmes. Also, during this financial year, the review of the Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree programmes started, and substantial progress made.
The Quality Enhancement Project (QEP), which was launched in 2014, and whose focus is to enhance learning and teaching in order to improve student success, continued to run during 2015/16 with a number workshops, including the first one for students. One key important development was that Deputy Vice Chancellors for teaching and learning, who spearhead the QEP at institutional level, undertook a study tour of universities in Scotland and the Scottish Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).
The first phase of the QEP was completed and institutions submitted their reports on the improvements they had made subsequent to their participation in the project. Institutional peer evaluation visits to all public universities were planned, and a few such visits were conducted during the year under review. The remainder of the institutional visits will be undertaken in the 2016/17 financial year.
In the Quality Promotion and Capacity Development function, the CHE organised and coordinated quality assurance fora for public universities, private higher education institutions and professional bodies respectively, through which the sector was engaged and important information was disseminated. Jointly with the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTSASA), the CHE also continued to organise the Excellence in Teaching and Learning Awards as one other way of promoting quality among academics. The CHE also launched an electronic newsletter as an additional platform for communicating with its stakeholders and promoting quality. Similarly, the CHE assisted sister quality assurance agencies in Angola, Cameroon, Kenya, Lesotho and Malawi to capacitate some of their officials by hosting them at the CHE so they could learn from their counterparts about the South African quality assurance system and tools.
The maintenance of good relations with stakeholders is considered central to the work of the CHE. During the year under review, driven by the imperative to optimise scarce capacity, the relationship with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) grew stronger. Bilateral meetings between officials of the DHET and the CHE were held regularly, and the Minister met Council in September 2015. The CHE and DHET jointly submitted funding proposals to the European Union’s Bridging Facility Funding programme for two joint projects which are going to be executed during 2016/17. Likewise, the CHE continued to work closely with the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), other quality councils and DHET on matters relating to and giving effect to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). Furthermore, the CHE explored areas of collaboration and cooperation with the National Research Foundation (NRF). At a regional level, the CHE was a key player in the activities of the newly launched Southern African Quality Assurance Network (SAQAN), and hosted an executive meeting of the organisation.
One of the key challenges faced during the 2015/16 year was litigation initiated by a private higher education institution which was not satisfied with the decisions taken by the HEQC pertaining to one of its programmes. The process of preparing and presenting a court defence proved to be costly financially as well as in terms of time. Since the court challenge was an acid test of the statutory authority and processes of the CHE and HEQC, the defence had to be rigorous and unflinching. Although the exercise was costly, I am confident that our response was correct under the circumstances, and in terms of the long term implications for the authority of the CHE and the rigours of its quality assurance processes.
A Council Strategy Workshop held in June 2015, came up with a list of four apex priority areas for the medium to long-term. These are the need to: (a) refine internal structural arrangements to ensure the effective and efficient operation of the CHE; (b) ensure that the CHE fulfils its legislated mandate in its entirety, including the auditing of the quality assurance mechanisms of higher education institutions; (c) diversify the sources of financial resources to fund the operations of the CHE; and (d) develop mechanisms for improving relationships with stakeholders. Work on all four apex priority areas commenced during the second half of the year under review, and will continue into the 2016/17 financial year.
In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to all stakeholders who, in their different ways, supported the CHE in its work during the 2015/16 financial year. The management and staff of the CHE are the foot soldiers of the organisation, and their hard work, loyalty and commitment, which they have consistently demonstrated during the year under review, are highly appreciated. I am similarly grateful to all local and international partners who collaborated with the CHE in different projects and initiatives. I thank all members of Council and committees of Council for carrying out their responsibilities with great dedication and professionalism. The support that the CHE continued to receive from the DHET even after the unforeseen events during the year forced significant attention to be diverted to other seemingly more pressing priorities is also highly appreciated. I thank the Minister, Deputy Minister, Director General and all the staff of the DHET for their unflinching support during this rather difficult year for the country. Finally, I would like to express my appreciation to the Chairperson and members of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training for working to ensure that I and my colleagues in Council and management are held to account for the decisions that we take in the best interests of higher education and the nation.
Professor N. Themba Mosia