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Good governance ensures credibility in a globally competitive market

By Sinegugu Duma, Naven Chetty, Ruth Hoskins, Brij Maharaj

The higher education sector in South Africa faces a catch-22 situation - to maintain national and global academic and professional standards with limited and declining resources. Furthermore, there is an imperative to manage students from diverse backgrounds in order to address the legacy of apartheid. The difficulties in the basic education sector are well known, and this is reflected in the huge frustrations and public costs linked to the slow throughput and high failure and dropout rates at universities.

Higher education and training is crucial for the development of a country's economy, technological advancement and for the enhancement of human capital, which also serves to augment its reputation as a global knowledge generator.

South Africa's higher education sector has grown phenomenally over the past two decades and has had to deal with challenges relating to transformation, redress and decolonisation. This growth has surpassed physical, infrastructural and economic resources in a highly competitive national and global environment. Against the background of the increasing commodification of higher education, it was imperative that students from disadvantaged backgrounds were not excluded, and NSFAS funding does provide some assistance.

In the digital age of the fourth industrial revolution, the exponential increase in knowledge generation and technology, and the associated rapidly changing training demands for disciplines, vocations and professions requires each institution to visibly and vibrantly market its unique and defining offerings that sets it apart from the other establishments, and thus position itself as an institution of choice.

Against the background of global rankings, there is a view that "no institution can afford to stand still or remain inward looking. Global and regional competition is intensifying and every university will have to be more resourceful' innovative and internationally oriented than ever [in order] to progress and reach their potential."

In terms of global rankings, the "credibility of higher education at South Africa's top institutions is on a decline, while other BRICS countries like Brazil, China' India and Russia are improving their standards". The comparison with these countries is relevant because they have similar socio-economic and educational challenges and complexities as South Africa. The counter view is that global rankings cannot be applied in a developing world context.

The caveat raised by higher education expert Nhlanhla Cele is important in this regard: "While comparing programmes globally upholds their integrity and secures more credibility for qualifications awarded on completion, the pursuit of such status should not blindly predicate the autonomy of science in a manner that falls short of the contextualisation of knowledge as public property."

The defining characteristic of an institution in this internationally competitive environment is its governance policies that determine the quality of its qualifications, and especially the employability of its graduates. Students are discerning and are acutely aware of the need for their academic and professional qualifications from reputable institutions to be marketable globally, and should be at the forefront of agitating for quality and excellence. Good governance systems ensure that higher education institutions maintain their credibility nationally and internationally.

According to Cele, academic quality and integrity of "qualifications are vigorously maintained by involving renowned peers and experts from outside universities in assessing curricula, teaching and learning practice, assessment tasks, assessment instruments, and the moderation of assessment practice. This practice ensures that the learning programmes and curriculum content are pitched as close as possible to common standards at other universities within the limits of comparability."

Furthermore, in the fields of health sciences, engineering, accounting, law and psychology, there are strict additional requirements in order to qualify for professional registration. Institutions that fail to comply risk losing accreditation for qualifications in these fields.

South African tertiary institutions have many policies and procedures in place that promote good governance, quality and integrity of qualifications. However, this can be questioned if the implementation of policies, rules and regulations are compromised.

It is not easy to create an ideal governance system when specific challenges of students must be considered. Hence, committees are established comprising experienced academics that do consider exceptional cases/circumstances (supported by appropriate evidence), which can, for example, recommend a special examination, supplementary tutorials, assignments and projects. However, the exception cannot become the norm.

Once approved, policies should be strictly adhered to and enforced through the governance model adopted. To be credible, globally competitive and sustainable, an institution is judged by its ability to govern itself and maintain the quality and reputation of its offerings in a dynamic environment. In order to avoid drifting into the backwaters of the global educational marketplace, South African institutions, now more than ever before, need to have transparent governance structures, revise (especially outdated) policies and enforce implementation.

* The writers are senior academics and managers at UKZN.