Lesotho’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) held its second biennial conference in Maseru last week. Among the many issues discussed was the 2013/14 State of Higher Education Report, which highlights the status and performance of 14 tertiary institutions in the country.
CHE Director-Policy, Strategy and Information, Mr Motlalepula Shadrack Khobotlo, explains the contents of the report and the Council’s mandate in this wide-ranging interview with Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane.
LT: The Council on Higher Education, popularly known by its acronym, CHE, has increasingly found itself in the news of late. Could you start by briefly giving us a background of this esteemed organization?
Khobotlo: CHE is a parastatal under the Ministry of Education and Training and was established by an Act of Parliament, the Higher Education Act of 2004. The Council was established to promote quality in the higher education subsector. Before its establishment, issues of higher education were addressed directly by the ministry. But the Government found it prudent to establish CHE when the country’s higher education issues broadened. The functions of CHE, as per the Act, include to monitor the implementation of policy on higher education, publish information regarding developments in higher education, promote access of students to higher education institutions, and advise the Minister of Education and Training in so far as issues of higher education are concerned. Also there are issues of promoting quality assurance in higher education institutions, accredit programmes offered by higher education institutions, and auditing quality assurance mechanisms of higher education institutions. We should be clear here that what we audit are quality assurance mechanisms, not finances within the institutions. I should indicate that the promotion of quality assurance and quality higher education is our core mandate.
LT: Let’s speak more about the accreditation of programmes and institutions of higher learning….It appears this issue has created uncertainty among Basotho who now view certain programmes and higher education institutions with suspicion because they are not sure if they are recognized by CHE.
Khobotlo: The Act stipulates that higher education is a learning programme leading to qualifications higher than COSC or its equivalent and whose accreditation has been approved by CHE. This applies to both public and private institutions. In other words, we are the gatekeepers. For any programme offered in any of the institutions, CHE is mandated to satisfy itself that such a programme is well-structured and meets certain minimum standards. We are also mandated to audit quality assurance mechanisms of institutions widely in terms of their operations and also look at issues of management and governance.
LT: Could you tell us the names of all the institutions recognised by CHE?
Khobotlo: We currently have a total of 15 institutions—nine of these are public and the remaining six are private. Under public institutions, we have the Centre for Accounting Studies, Institute of Development Management, Lerotholi Polytechnic, Lesotho Agricultural College, Lesotho College of Education, Lesotho Institute of Public Administration and Management, National Health Training College and National University of Lesotho and Lesotho Boston Health Alliance. And under private institutions, we have Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, Maluti Adventist College, Paray School of Nursing, Roma College of Nursing, Scott School of Nursing, and Botho University.
LT: But Lesotho appears to have more than these 15 institutions you have mentioned…
Khobotlo: The law requires that private institutions should register with the Ministry of Education and Training. Public institutions, on the other hand, are not required to register because they are established by an Act of Parliament. The process is such that a private institution will first submit its registration request, and the registrar will advise the institution to now submit a list of its programmes to CHE. This is because the responsibility to review the programmes by the ministry lies with CHE. CHE will then invite relevant experts to scrutinise the programmes and this happens within the registration process. If the institution has, for instance, submitted 10 programmes, CHE may accredit some or all of them, depending on whether they meet the set standards. This means that the institution will be registered and only offer programmes that have been accredited. But where CHE does not accredit any of the submitted programmes, the institution will not be registered. However, I should mention that the registration of a private institution is twofold. The registration I have detailed was in relation to the Higher Education Act. There is another registration which the institutions make at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, as per the Companies Act and this registration has nothing to do with CHE.
LT: Does this mean you only recognise institutions whose programmes you have accredited?
Khobotlo: CHE started its operations in 2010 after the Act was passed in 2004. Perhaps I should also indicate that the first Council was appointed in 2008 – four years after the establishment of the Act. And you will realise that two years later, in 2010, CHE was operationalized through the establishment of the Secretariat. This means there was now an office from which all CHE operations would be undertaken. That’s the chronology. So the point now is when operations fully started in 2010, some of the institutions had long been in operation – both public and private. The only exception from the list was Botho University which had not yet been established. So CHE did not want to be disruptive of the already existing institutions. Life had to continue. So we automatically recognised their existence. However, they still had to register formally with the ministry. We agreed that they should continue with programmes they offered, but we still had to review them. In August 2012, CHE issued an announcement notifying all HEIs that all new programmes would have to be accredited by CHE before they could run. Even the programmes that they already offered still needed accreditation, but we acknowledged that it would take some time to go through all of them. This is why they are recognized so that institutions can continue offering them until they have been reviewed and their status determined.
LT: Is there a possibility that Lesotho has institutions of higher learning operating illegally?
Khobotlo: Yes. There might be illegal private institutions which we are not aware of. Sometimes these new private institutions are brought to our attention by the public. For instance, a person would come to our office asking whether a certain institution is recognised by us, if he or she wants to apply for admission into that institution. That’s how they come to our attention. Sometimes other institutions come to our attention when they advertise in the media. There may be such illegal institutions which have not registered with the ministry. This is why it is important for the public to know which institutions are recognized. In other words, we currently have 15 institutions officially recognised by the Ministry, CHE included. However, I should mention that although we recognise them, Botho University is the only one which has fully registered with the ministry. This is simply because the institution came when all systems on registration of private institutions were fully operational. But equally important is to mention that the other private institutions are working towards normalized registration with our Ministry. So there shouldn’t be any fuss about this.
LT: The State of Higher Education Report of 2013/14 highlights the deteriorating admission rate at institutions. Why is this a concern?
Khobotlo: It’s critical for institutions to admit all qualifying students for two key reasons; one is access. The more they are able to take students, then it would mean the issue of access is solved. All Basotho who qualify to be in higher education institutions should be there. If they absorb fewer students, it means more qualifying Basotho are left stranded. The report shows a downward trend in relation to this. This could mean the absorptive capacity of our institutions is low. This is determined by available resources – teachers and facilities. The other critical issue here is funding. This issue is beyond our control as CHE and the ministry. It is mainly regulated by the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS). We all know the NMDS sponsorship is not necessarily based on whether sponsored students are needy or not. The requirement is only that the students qualify in terms of their academic scores. This too, we have realised, hinders access to higher education institutions because where a needy student may not be sponsored, it means he or she will not have access to the institutions. That sponsorship might have gone to students who could still afford to be paid for by their parents. The recommendation therefore, is for the Secretariat to have criteria in place to accommodate and sponsor students who are in dire need of funding. In cases where students can pay, their parents should meet the state halfway and share the costs. But we cannot rely entirely on the data we have to determine the admission rates until we have a central application system. There is an element of double-counting in the data we used because one student could have applied to more than one institution. That means such a student has been counted twice. But with the central application system, we would be able to see that. Other countries already have that system. If we could also have the system, we would be in a much better place to make a strong point that there is a great gap that needs to be filled.
LT: The report further notes concern over institutions mainly offering sub-degree programmes and not many programmes beyond that…
Khobotlo: We have very low numbers of postgraduates and that is a worrying factor. We have a very low number of students studying for Masters and Doctoral qualifications. It is important to have postgraduate qualifications in our institutions because the higher you go, the deeper the research that has to be engaged in. That means the more innovation, the more spinoffs for economic development. This further means the more knowledge generation. At present, we consume innovation from other countries and that is not good for our economic growth. Perhaps I should mention that funding is the biggest challenge here too. Research is expensive.
LT: There is also this issue of people with disabilities…is our system accommodative of these citizens?
Khobotlo: It’s important for the institutions to accommodate people with disabilities because they are citizens like any other Mosotho. They should not be discriminated against. You would not want them to be dependent on others when they can be economically active. The country wants every citizen who has capacity to benefit from higher education and contribute to the economy. These people could even be more intelligent than most of us with no disabilities. This indicator is also in line with the country’s higher education policies. We reported that there were only 20 students with disabilities in 2013/14 in all the 14 recognised institutions and we are saying that is not sufficient considering the estimated 3,434 population of people with disabilities in the country within the age group eligible for higher education. Out of the 3,434, it is likely that more qualify for higher education. Institutions have to provide the necessary facilities to make the teaching and learning environment conducive for people with disabilities. Clearly, this issue too has additional cost-implications on the part of the institutions. Hence the need for increased financial support to them by government.
LT: The report also highlighted, as a matter of concern, the issue of lecturers who teach students at the same level as their own qualifications, and even above their own qualifications…
Khobotlo: This is one of the important problems we face because to start with, our quality assurance standards stipulate very clearly that lecturers should teach at least if their qualifications are one level above the programme they are teaching. For instance, a lecturer who teaches a diploma programme should at least hold a bachelor’s degree. The same goes for someone teaching a degree programme; he or she should hold at least a Master’s. That’s the minimum requirement. It’s problematic, therefore, that we still have lecturers who teach at the same level as their own qualifications. This is why there is a specific recommendation in the report, which is directed to CHE that it, working directly with the institutions, should ensure that they comply with that standard.