Higher education has a vital role to play in contributing to the reconstruction and development of all aspects of South African society. In the context of the journey begun in 1994 to fashion a common citizenship and a nation based on the principles enshrined in the Constitution of non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy, the role of higher education cannot be reduced narrowly to producing the knowledge and skills required for economic development and growth. While these are important, fashioning a common citizenry requires that higher education contributes to addressing all the elements that are constitutive of a society—social, cultural, economic and political. As a recent report on undergraduate curriculum reform published by the Council on Higher Education (CHE, August 2013, 32) states:
Graduates are required for their disciplinary and professional expertise and for creating jobs, and there are key elements of development that cannot be achieved without them. However, the need for more people with advanced knowledge and competencies, as well as an informed understanding of the contemporary world, goes beyond the demands of economic development and technical skills shortages into all key areas of the country’s well-being, including social cohesion, cultural growth and the maturation of South Africa’s democracy through responsible citizenship.
However, higher education is failing in its basic mission to produce the graduates required for the reconstruction and development of South African society. It is failing because of the 18% of 20 to 24 year-olds who are enrolled in higher education, which is low in comparison with other middle income countries, roughly half drop-out without obtaining a qualification. The National Plan for Higher Education (NPHE) indicated that increasing the participation rate in higher education is dependent on “improving the efficiency of the higher education system through increasing graduate outputs”. This has not been achieved. In the 13 years since the release of the NPHE and despite a range of interventions, including support through the fiscus for expanding extended degree programmes and teaching development grants, the challenge of poor throughputs from higher education remains. It is a challenge that we need to face head-on if higher education is to contribute to giving effect to the vision of expanding access, improving quality and increasing diversity that is contained in the recently released White Paper on Post-School Education and Training and in the National Development Plan.
The Quality Enhancement Project (QEP), which will replace institutional audits in the second cycle of quality assurance, is the CHE’s response to addressing the challenge of low throughput in higher education. The aim of the QEP is to enhance all aspects of teaching and learning in order to improve student success, which is defined as:
Enhanced student learning with a view to increasing the number of graduates with attributes that are personally, professionally and socially valuable.
Furthermore, a key aspect of the QEP is the recognition that the poor throughput rate is a national challenge and requires the higher education system as a whole to come together to collectively reflect on the challenge, the lessons learned and the solutions required. This is not to suggest a one-size-fits-all solution but to recognise that addressing the challenge is beyond the reach of individual institutions.
The QEP is the culmination of an extended period of research and consultation following the end of the first cycle of quality assurance in 2011. The substance, focus and form of the QEP were presented, discussed and debated in a wide range of forums, including focus groups from a variety of higher education institutions—rural and urban, small and large, historically advantaged and disadvantaged, traditional, comprehensive and universities of technology—as well in quality assurance forums with representatives from public and private higher education institutions and professional bodies, meetings with the Deputy Vice-Chancellors: Academic and Teaching and Learning and in three regional symposia attended by over 800 stakeholders, which were led by Professor Vincent Tinto, Distinguished Professor of Education at Syracuse University in the USA and world-renowned expert on student success at tertiary level, entitled “Conceptualising a coherent approach to student success”.
The enthusiastic response of a wide range and large number of participants in the various events and meetings of 2013 to the focus on student success within a quality enhancement framework is evidence that the QEP is timely and much-needed.
The QEP provides an enabling framework within which individual higher education institutions and the higher education system as a whole can make significant progress in addressing the critical challenge of increased student success.