It is a national crisis when you have university graduates who cannot read, cannot write and cannot spell. It is a national disaster if you have graduates who cannot reason or engage in critical thinking. In Zambia, we face a huge crisis in tertiary education. This column has for the past two weeks addressed the pathetic failure rate at the Zambia Institute of Advanced Legal Education (ZIALE). We stand by our comments and opinions. A ninety-five percent failure rate is ridiculously unjustifiable. Today, we would like to extend that debate a little bit more to address the issue of quality in higher education in Zambian institutions. Some time ago, a ZIALE lecturer contacted me to let me know that the quality of Bachelor of Laws (LLB) graduates in Zambian universities is so pathetic that most of them cannot spell simple words and cannot string a sentence together. I will take him at his word and contact him so that we can converse further on how we can together contribute to our country’s development.
I should not beat the ZIALE issue any further, though. Without doubt, ZIALE has its own role to play by training in such a way as to raise its passing rate. But universities, both private and public, also have a role to play in ensuring that they graduate candidates who have truly merited their qualifications. It cannot be justifiable for any university in Zambia to grant degrees to students who cannot write a single essay!
Private universities in Zambia should be commended. They came in at a time when there was a huge demand for university and other tertiary education. The two universities, University of Zambia (UNZA) and the Copperbelt University (CBU), we have had for decades could not accommodate all of the many Zambians who needed a decent higher education. It really made sense that in the last decade, Zambia opened the higher education market to private players. These private players, such as the Zambia Open University (ZAOU) and the Northrise University, have changed the game. However, once a nation opens a market to private players, it is important to uphold some standards. After both ZAOU and Northrise, we have seen a proliferation of private universities, some are good and some are bad. The Zambian government has the responsibility to ensure that these private universities uphold the highest of standards. To achieve these standards, the Zambian parliament passed the Zambia Qualifications Authority (ZAQA) Act in 2011. In spite of its establishment in 2011, it is only very recently that ZAQA is taking any meaningful shape. We must encourage this body to work well and give it the support it needs.
According to Section 3 of the Zambia Qualifications Authority Act (2011), ZAQA is there to “develop and implement a National Qualifications Framework for the classification, accreditation, publication and articulation of quality- assured national qualifications.” Specifically, ZAQA has several statutory functions such as:
(1) develop, oversee and maintain a national qualification framework for Zambia; (2) develop and implement policy for the development, accreditation and publication of qualifications and part- qualifications, (3) accredit a qualification or part-qualification recommended by an appropriate authority if it meets the relevant criteria; (4) develop policy and criteria after consultation with the appropriate authorities for assessment, recognition of prior learning and credit accumulation and transfer; and (5) ensure that standards and accredited qualifications are internationally comparable.
Other functions of ZAQA are to determine national standards for any occupation; recognise and validate competencies for purposes of certification obtained outside the formal education and training systems; and recognise and validate competencies for purposes of certification obtained outside the country.
ZAQA should therefore, immediately engage all the stakeholders so that they begin adhering to minimum standards, before Zambian tertiary education gets pulled further into the quagmire. ZAQA needs to make it clear that universities and colleges should employ lecturers who are at least one qualification higher than the qualification for which they are teaching. Those teaching degree courses must at least have a master’s degree. Those teaching masters degrees should at least have doctoral degrees. It cannot be tolerated to have degree holders purporting to teach other degree holders. This is what some private universities are doing, and it is deplorable. It does not give Zambian education a good name.
ZAQA should also look into the fees that universities are charging. It could be a stretch to suggest that ZAQA has the sole responsibility to police university fees. But it has the responsibility to ensure that students get educational value for the fees they are paying. Some Zambian private universities are charging exorbitant fees for an inferior education. This is unacceptable. Some universities are universities in name only and they do not have the requisite infrastructure. ZAQA does not need complicated mechanisms to control this. It must begin working on this as soon as possible.
ZAQA should also call for a huge indaba to address the ZIALE failure rate. ZIALE has a seat on ZAQA board and it is an organisation subject to ZAQA jurisdiction as far as standardization of its qualifications is concerned. ZAQA should bring all the stakeholders together to find the way forward to ZIALE’s pathetic failure rate. Is there a way ZAQA can intervene to restrict how many private universities should be able to offer a qualifying law degree? If ZIALE is concerned with standards from private universities, it could be time for ZAQA to initiate discussions in that direction.
As the creature of our parliament, ZAQA has a singular role to redeem the tertiary education system in Zambia. By coming up with a consistent framework, it will be helpful for all stakeholders to know exactly what is expected of them and their qualifications. By upholding good standards, Zambian qualifications will be able to compete with international qualifications. Zambian tertiary education has a long way to go, and ZAQA should be encouraged to play its part.