ODeL and the Quest for Quality Higher Education in Africa
African higher education is at the crossroads. After a few decades of sustained growth in terms of relative expansion (still below world average), the sub-sector has embarked on the quest for quality. Indeed, the quality of African universities, in other words their internal and external efficiency, has always been a source of concern. For instance, only ten institutions on the continent have been ranked within the world’s top 1,000 universities in 2015-2016. This assessment carried out by the Center for World University Rankings (CWUR), a Saudi Arabia-based education consulting organization is based on criteria ranging from the quality of graduates (those with highly sought-after skills and competencies) and faculty to patent filings, publications and citations. Even though a few academics have contested the validity of this ranking, the truth remains that graduates from African universities find it difficult to compete on the global job market and Africa’s scientific knowledge production and contribution to the world’s knowledge base has been estimated at a mere 1.1% of the total (Kariuku, 2015).
Several initiatives have been launched to address this situation at the national, sub-regional and regional levels. There has been a surge in the creation of quality assurance frameworks starting with the Arusha Convention in 1981 which sought to address the fragmentation of higher education in Africa through regional co-operation and the mutual recognition of qualifications. The Convention has ever since given impetus to new developments going in the right direction as regards quality. At the national level, many African countries have created regulatory bodies to ensure that both public and private universities adhere to internationally-recognized standards of quality. At the sub-regional level, geographical and/or linguistic blocks have been created to entrench quality standards within universities such as the African and Malagasy Council for Higher Education (CAMES) for the French-speaking universities, the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) and the Technical Committee of the Southern African Development Council (SADC); and the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) which is embedded within the East African Community (EAC). At the regional level, the African Union (AU) is pushing for the harmonization of the quality assurance frameworks and the Association of African Universities (AAU) has created the African Quality Assurance Network (AfriQAN) with the view to providing assistance to institutions concerned with Quality Assurance in higher education in Africa.
As much as these initiatives are important in bringing center stage the policy discourse on quality at the national, sub-regional and regional levels, it is at the institutional level that the fight for quality will be won as evidence suggests. The advent of Open and Distance eLearning (ODeL) in African universities is providing a unique opportunity to reform higher education through the mainstreaming of internationally recognized standards of quality.