Part Two: The Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) problem
In the previous column we cast a panoramic overview of what we termed the education capture. We drew rough linking lines between the politicians and business interests behind the private tertiary institutions and argued that the primary interest of the business players running private tertiary institutions is not education, but profit.
Today we zoom into an important player in the tertiary education landscape: The Botswana Qualifications Authority. Our central argument is that though the Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA) is seized with a critical responsibility of stopping the Philistines at the door, it is largely ineffective, it depends on persons who may be conflicted and are easily purchasable. We contend that BQA has dramatically failed to ensure that programs that are offered at tertiary institutions are of world class standard. BQA is responsible for the promotion and coordination of tertiary education and for the determination and maintenance of standards of teaching, examination and research in tertiary institutions. In this regard, they review and approve programmes of study in respect of private tertiary institutions using the following five criteria: (1) Relevance of the programme (2) Student learning outcomes (3) programme structure, scope and sequence (4) Qualification requirements and (5) Assessment Tools and methodology. Any approved program in our tertiary institutions are approved by BQA. However there is something terribly defective with BQA processes. I will identify these one at a time.
First, in the current system a college can teach a program which has not been accredited by BQA putting in jeopardy the lives of hundreds and possibly thousands of students, and potential students. This is how it happens. When an institution wishes to run a program, they apply to BQA with relevant documents such as the curriculum and other supporting details. Their application is then sent to about two reviewers who then pronounce whether such a program can be taught. Reviewers usually comprise a professional from the field and one who is an educator in the same field of the proposed program. Once the reviewers recommend that a program can be offered, an institution will go ahead and start teaching it. Now here is the problem: the program will start without BQA knowing if the right lecturers are on the ground, without knowing if the library (if it exists at all) has the appropriate books to support the teaching of such a program, without knowing if the classrooms and lecture theatres, labs etc are functioning. What BQA would have is merely a written promise, good intentions and a plan of execution, and nothing else. BQA ends blindsided. Such a program will start unaccredited. Actually the Act assumes that the programme will start unaccredited and will only be accredited at a later stage. Article 4 (1) of the act says a “programme specified in the application for accreditation must have been offered for at least one academic year and have been the subject of an internal review process approved by the Council through the issue of a certificate of registration.” Note the wording carefully, it “must have been offered for at least one academic year,” which means an institution could apply for accreditation when a program had been running for a year or two. What happens if the programme fails the assessment and doesn’t get accredited? Well, the students are doomed. The institution is supposed to move them to an institution offering a similar accredited programme and bear the costs of their training. But does it happen? No, in most of the cases the students graduate with an unaccredited programme; graduating into an uncertain future; graduating into Joseph Conrad’s heart of darkness. Even if they were to be moved to a different institution, the students would be victims of a terribly flawed and amateurish educational system. They would have wasted a whole year or two, perhaps three, learning in a substandard institution.
Here lies the second problem with BQA. Once a program has been running for a year or two an institution would submit what is called a self-study (in line with BQA guidelines and standards) and apply to BQA for program accreditation. BQA would then send such documents to independent Assessors (usually about three) who would visit the concerned institution to verify the claims stated in the self-study. Here is the second problem: BQA has no way of knowing if the assessors’ reports are accurate or if the assessor is conflicted. It is at the mercy of two or three assessors. It has been reported that some assessors have been purchasable in the past. Once at an institution, they sometimes meet institution management that greases their hands, the slip of a brown envelope perhaps, so that they report favourably on the institution. BQA would be blindsided yet again. For instance there is a case in which a private college approached a member of staff at the Ministry of Health for a reference concerning a proposed program. Once written, the reference was included as part of the application documents sent to BQA. The college promised this member of staff who offered them a reference that once the program was approved by BQA, he would be offered a job in the college to teach the proposed program. Once the documents reached BQA, BQA then engaged the same individual fom the Ministry of Health who had provided a reference for a program, to assess the viability of the same program. BQA failed to pick a glaring conflict of interest. That is one view. Another view is that even when reviewers produced unfavourable reports concerning an institution, such reports are only recommendations. A programme may be approved even if one of the reviewers had advised against it. There are no checks and balances for the assessors and within BQA itself to ensure that institutions comply 100% with the guidelines and demands of BQA standards.
The third problem with BQA is this: BQA doesn’t approve programmes after consulting the professional registration bodies, associations and licensing bodies that the graduates of certain programmes will have to become members of. For instances the Law Society of Botswana. If a law programme is approved by BQA and such a programme is not recognised by the Law Society of Botswana, then the students though trained in an accredited institution and programme, are doomed. They would not be admitted to practice law in Botswana. Second example, the Botswana Health Professions Council (BHPC) is the licensing body for all health professionals (excluding nurses) in Botswana. For one to register with the BHPC they have to take an exam. However, if a graduate had gone through a substandard program from an institution, though they have graduated from an accredited program and institution, they will fail such a test and be unable to practise as health professionals in Botswana.
What I have argued here is that BQA is in a poor position to guarantee excellent education and standards in tertiary institutions. For instance BQA doesn’t force private institutions to state clearly in their adverts that an advertised program is not accredited. BQA fails to guarantee that lecturers in private institutions are properly trained and have good working space where they research, consult students and prepare for lessons. As it stands, BQA is a terrible Achilles’ heel in the Botswana tertiary education system. Instead of weeding out weak programs, their processes are too porous and merely serve to legitimise and rubber stamp programs which are not benefitting the Botswana economy.