Prof Narend Baijnath, CEO Council on Higher Education (CHE)

Prof Narend Baijnath - CHE.jpg

Please could you share some background on the work of the Council?

The CHE as an independent statutory body has three core functions: advising the Minister of Higher Education and Training on matters relating to higher education in South Africa; monitoring trends in the higher education system and publishing research on this; and assuring and promoting the quality of higher education – both public and private. The last of these functions is done largely through accreditation of all programmes offered in higher education (more than 10 000 in total), through the audit of the quality assurance mechanisms of higher education institutions, and through national reviews of programmes at a national level.

The legislative mandate of the CHE is derived from the Higher Education Act (Act 101 of 1997), which established the CHE as a statutory body. Its role in quality assurance was further amplified as the Quality Council for Higher Education in terms of the National Qualifications Framework Act (Act 67 of 2008). As a statutory body, the CHE is a Schedule 3A National Public Entity subject to the Public Finance Management Act (Act 29 of 1999) and the applicable Treasury Regulations.

In terms of the Higher Education Act, the mandate of the CHE includes the following: 

  • To provide advice to the Minister of Higher Education and Training on all higher education matters on request and proactively.
  • To promote quality and quality assurance in higher education through its permanent committee, the HEQC, including auditing the quality assurance mechanisms of, and accrediting programmes offered by, higher education institutions.
  • To monitor the state of higher education and publishing information regarding developments in higher education on a regular basis, including arranging and co-ordinating conferences on higher education issues.

In terms of the National Qualifications Framework Act, as the Quality Council for Higher Education the CHE’s mandate includes the following:

  • To develop and manage the qualifications sub-framework for higher education, namely the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF), including ensuring the relevance and currency of qualifications.
  • To advise the Minister of Higher Education on matters relating to the HEQSF.
  • To develop and implement policy and criteria for the development, registration and publication of qualifications, as well as for assessment, recognition of prior learning and credit accumulation and transfer in the context of the policy and criteria developed by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA).
  • To contribute to the development of level descriptors and to ensure their relevance.
  • To maintain a database of learner achievements in higher education and to submit the data to the National Learners’ Records Database, which SAQA maintains.
  • To conduct and publish research, which facilitates the development and implementation of the sub-framework.
  • To inform the public of the sub-framework.

The CHE, in interpreting and giving effect to its mandate, has adopted five strategic imperatives, which inform the development of its strategic goals and objectives:

  • To contribute to informing and influencing the public debate on the policy framework for the transformation of the higher education system.
  • To contribute to developing the role of the quality assurance system as a steering tool in conjunction with planning and funding to enhance the quality of higher education and to enable the achievement of national policy goals and objectives.
  • To contribute to ensuring the currency and relevance of the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework to meet the human resource and knowledge needs of South Africa, including the development and maintenance of standards to enhance the quality of higher education.
  • To contribute to building the intellectual capability of the CHE.
  • To contribute to the development of an enabling and effective organisational climate.

It’s no doubt been an extremely challenging year in terms of giving advice and input to the Minister of Higher Education and Training considering all the recent challenges in education. What have been the most challenging things the Council has had to deal with, and what for you have been the highlights or the areas of growth or improvement?

Indeed, the South African higher education system experienced considerable upheaval during last year related to fee increases and the affordability of higher education for the poor and the ‘missing middle’, transformational challenges, and the issue of insourcing of outsourced workers. Sustained student protests, violence, destruction of property and postponement of examinations were the issues that preoccupied the sector. The immediate challenge was to resolve the issue of fee increases for 2016. This was done by government intervention and a resolution that a 0% increase in tuition and other fees would apply for 2016. A critical concern for 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 due to protracted disequilibrium in the sector.  

During the last year, the process of aligning the more than 10 000 existing higher education programmes to the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF) was 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 was also initiated.

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.

Many people are worried that our international reputation might be suffering as a result of the recent student uprisings, but what has been your feedback from other countries in this regard? 

Most would understand that universities are the arena for contestations and protest action such as we have witnessed. The youth of a particular generation find their compass, discover or develop their ideals, and sharpen their intellectual and moral stances on the critical issues which confront our society, and in so doing, make their voices heard. Or they take to the streets to raise awareness of their cause. In this case, they brought attention to the continued inequalities in our society, and the particular plight of the poor and members of the middle classes who are finding it unaffordable to fund their children at university. This is what we witnessed in large part. I am not aware that anyone thinks that due to the protest action that our international reputation might have suffered.

What positives have come out of the student uprisings?

We have become more acutely aware of the struggles that many, especially black students, face in completing their studies due to financial challenges. We have also become aware of the rising costs that universities face as resourcing either remains static or is in decline. The issue of funding for the poor has received heightened and focused attention. Attempts are being made to diversify the sources of funding especially for the ‘missing middle’. More funds have been galvanised for the national student financial aid scheme through the national budget. Those who have benefitted from the scheme previously and are now in employment have been placed under pressure to pay back their loans through a specific intervention.

What role does the Council play in terms of assisting students at risk? 

We do not play a direct role in assisting students. Our work is aimed at developing a scholarly understanding of what is happening, to illuminate the issues in all their complexity, and participate in and influence the national discourse on these matters. In these regards, the CHE held a student-funding colloquium in early December 2015. Flowing from this was a publication of an edition of Kagisano dedicated to student funding. The Kagisano series is aimed at debating and discussing contemporary topics in higher education. The March 2016 edition on student funding consisted of seven papers covering aspects such as existing funding models of higher education and the impact on institutions, ideological dimensions of student funding, different models of funding students, sustainable funding of higher education, and the value of higher education, amongst others. The CHE also recently published a 20-year review of higher education, the last chapter of which is dedicated to the funding of higher education.

What is your view on the current state of South African education, and what do you believe the future holds for education in South Africa? 

There are a number of concerns for the future. Expenditure on higher education is lower than desirable or needed. We lag behind on a number of measurements. For instance, the proportion of the entire education budget spent on higher education is 12% compared to 20% for the rest of Africa, 23.4% for OECD countries, and 19.8% for the rest of the world.

Pressures for the state to provide more funding for poorer students or for fee-free higher education will mount. Aspirations are to increase access and widen participation with clear targets in place through national development planning. Funding in line with goals for growth has not kept pace. In a climate of weak economic growth, these tensions will in all likelihood not abate.   

What do you see as the positives to look forward to in education and the opportunities we should focus on for the greater socio-economic benefit of South Africa?

Higher education in South Africa today is profoundly different from where it was two decades ago. The starting point at the dawn of democracy in South Africa was a ‘fragmented, insular, elite and uneven apartheid inheritance’. The achievements that can be counted today are many and impactful. The system has been substantially consolidated through mergers and restructuring. Today we count 26 public and 125 private institutions, reduced from the diverse 36 public and more than 300 private institutions pre-1994 when higher education was unregulated, with variable quality. From 500 000 students in public higher education in 1994, we today have over a million. Another great achievement is in the change in student demographics to the point that the majority of students are now black African, with an upward trajectory in their growth. Much more progress remains to be made in the participation rates for black students though, which still differs markedly – 16% for African students in 2013, compared to 55% for whites.

The quality assurance and regulatory regime that has been put in place is comparable to any elsewhere, even in the developed world. Governance arrangements across the public higher education sector is much more even and consistent. Quality assurance is uniform and processes of scrutiny and evaluation consistently lead to the closure of programmes that do not meet minimum standards. The paying public can therefore have greater confidence that the programmes they undertake have undergone due scrutiny from a quality assurance perspective.

Which of the Council’s functions do you consider to be the most relevant in terms of helping to improve South Africa’s standards of education and in providing opportunities for our students to develop themselves?

For students and for society generally, a critical concern is for it to be known that the qualifications gained from our universities meet acceptable standards – that graduates leave universities with credible qualifications, demonstrable competencies and skills, and that they can secure jobs on these bases. The work of the CHE in quality assurance at programme, qualification and institutional level is vital. It should be comforting to the public that no programme can be offered without it having undergone a rigorous accreditation process, and periodic re-accreditation. Standards are being developed systematically for all qualifications to ensure that our graduates emerge with comparable knowledge, skills and capabilities no matter which institutions they have graduated from.

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