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HEA to classify universities into tiers

AS part of the re-organisation of the higher education sector, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) will next year begin classification of universities into a four-tier system. The tiers are based on a national classification system developed by the Authority and provided for by the Higher Education Act No.4 of 2013 and Statutory Instrument No. 25 of 2016.
The national classification system will lead to new and existing universities being classified into tiers depending on their capabilities in teaching, research and public service.
The classification is coming against the backdrop of increased participation by various actors in the higher education sector over the past two decades. This increased participation is a direct result of the 1992 legal reforms in higher education that allowed non-state actors to participate in the provision of university education. Prior to this period, the country had only two universities – the University of Zambia and Copperbelt University.
While the two public universities have made an immense contribution to Zambia’s national development through training of vital human resources, their capacity to absorb the thousands of secondary school graduates eligible for university education has always been severely limited.
Today, the higher education sector’s limitation to absorb secondary school graduates is being mitigated by the emergence of private and faith-based universities. Thus, from two universities in 1992, the country now has over 50 universities. A positive consequence of this development has been an increase in the diversity of learning programmes on the higher education market available to prospective students.
While the diversity that has come to characterise the higher education landscape is healthy and critical to increasing access to university education, the downside is that for over a decade, since the legal reforms of 1992, the higher education sector operated as a weakly regulated and coordinated sector without external quality controls until the establishment of the Higher Education Authority in 2013.
Within this weakly coordinated sector, universities operated in an institutional vacuum, where any university could offer any level of education, sometimes without considerable attention to its capabilities. The negative consequences of this situation are quite evident and have manifested in various forms, including public dissatisfaction with the quality of graduates and low research activity in universities.
HEA seeks a cure for these challenges in our higher education sector. Thus, besides implementing other quality assurance mechanisms such as programme accreditation and institutional audits, the Authority is rolling out the national university classification programme.
The national classification system categorises universities into four tiers. Each tier is distinguished by the level of education that can be provided by institutions in that class based on their teaching, learning and research capabilities. In this way, the system creates roles for universities classified at different tiers. For example, Tier 1 institutions are research-oriented institutions that will be given the role of offering higher research degrees such as doctorates.
The rationale for giving doctoral awarding powers to such institutions is that doctoral researchers can best be nurtured in an environment where there is an existing research culture, experienced senior scholars and the necessary infrastructure to support production of quality doctoral graduates. Thus, institutions in tier 1 will be allowed to offer degree programmes up to doctoral level based on the fact that they have demonstrated this essential attribute.
Similarly, institutions that demonstrate enough capacity to offer postgraduate education at master’s degree level will be placed in Tier 2. The other two classes, Tier 3 and Tier 4, will be restricted to taught programmes at Bachelor’s degree and postgraduate diploma levels respectively.
It is important to note here that the national classification system is not a ranking system. It does not seek to create a league table of high- and low- flying institutions such as that of the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Rather, it groups universities with similar capacity into similar classes and assigns them roles on the basis of their capacity.
At the core of the classification is the idea that universities should only offer a level of education for which they have the necessary capacity. In this regard, universities can be high performers within the tier in which they are classified. This is different from ranking institutions on the basis of performance.
Further, it is also important to note that the Authority is not touting the idea of a classification system as a panacea to the challenges that plague our higher education system. However, it is seen as one of the many necessary steps that must be taken to fix our higher education system.
The classification system has numerous benefits for actors in the education sector. For prospective learners and the public, it will provide information on the ability of a university to satisfy the minimum quality standards in the provision of higher education. The public will be assured that an institution has the ability to offer the level of education in the tier in which it is classified. For universities, the classification system allows them to enter or stay in the higher education sector within an appropriate tier that best represents their capacity while offering them an opportunity to invest in quality assurance systems to enable them to move to the next tier or to maintain their stay in a tier.
The author is manager – standards, research and institutional audits, Higher Education Authority.