The institutionalization of quality assurance is firmly on the agenda of higher education in anumber of developed and developing countries around the world. The demand for greater accountability and efficiency in respect of public financing, trends towards mass participation in the face of shrinking resources, and greater stakeholder scrutiny of education and training processes and outcomes have led to the increasing implementation of formal quality assurance arrangements within higher education institutions and systems. A quality assurance system is intended to ensure that higher education and training programmes at under-graduate and postgraduate levels are relevant and responsive to the needs of learners, employers and other stakeholders within the context of the social, intellectual and economic requirements of societal development.
The new regulatory framework governing South African education and training makes the quality of provision central to the achievement of the goals of the National Qualifications Framework. A number of legislative instruments, for example, the SAQA Act, the Skills Development Act and the Higher Education Act highlight the role of quality assurance in delivering key national objectives of equity and development. Within the context of higher education, the construction of a national quality assurance system is a critical component of the restructuring of higher education which is currently underway. The quality assurance system is intended to support the achievement of the purposes and goals for higher education identified in the Education White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education.Quality is identified as one of the principles that should guide the transformation of higher education, together with equity and redress, democratisation, development, effectiveness and efficiency, academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability. Given the history of discriminatory exclusion in this country, it is important to ensure that the quality assurance system enhances access not simply to higher education but to high standards of provision and their concomitant intellectual and economic benefits. A new quality assurance system for higher education will have to take into account the following issues of context:
- The imminent reconfiguration of higher education in terms of size and shape which is likely to require more explicit mission specification and its effective delivery within the context of national needs. This, in turn, will require the development of a more evenly capacitated and resourced higher education system to provide high quality education and training within a range of diverse institutional missions.
- An uneven quality assurance landscape with a range of unintegrated initiatives at national, institutional and regional levels.
- The challenges for public and private higher education in responding to the requirements of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF).
- The increased demands on higher education to deliver knowledge resources and services as well as high level skills and competencies for social and economic development.
- The required role of higher education in facilitating social justice through enhanced participation opportunities in higher education for formerly disadvantaged constituencies.
- The development of a higher education system whose objectives are delivered by public and private providers in a context of competition and collaboration.
- The growing role of technology in teaching and learning, the expansion of higher education opportunities through distance and open learning, and increasing arrangements for workplace learning at higher education levels.
- The rapid internationalization of higher education and the increasing mobility of graduates and professionals across national boundaries.
Many of the above issues will require coordinated policy, planning and resourcing decisions and actions by a range of role-players in order to enable a new national quality assurance dispensation to succeed in its objectives. This is particularly true of macro level issues requiring resolution, for example, the successful reconfiguration of the higher education system and the development of a redress and equity plan to address poor and uneven capacity in higher education provision. The promotion and enhancement of quality in higher education provision will require both breadth of vision and strategic focus in order to facilitate the achievement of diverse social purposes ascribed to higher education in the current South African context.