Quality: An Ideological Construct?


  • Philip Rayner Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA) Vice-Director


Nearly all those involved in the Ethiopian higher education system recognize the crucial role that an agency such as the Higher Education Relevance & Quality Agency (HERQA) will play in the maintenance and assessment of the quality of education offered at a time of rapid and substantial expansion. However, at present it is not clear how HERQA will undertake its role to supervise the quality of higher education when there is still a need to clarify what is meant by quality in the Ethiopian context, how it can be identified and judged. This paper argues that there is a need for stakeholders to come together and negotiate an agreed understanding of what quality looks like, what is acceptable as minimum standards and the processes and procedures that HERQA needs to undertake its evaluations. Each stakeholder has its own ideology, its own set of ideas and values that, for each stakeholder will appear as ‘common sense’ and will influence how they define quality and how they see the role of HERQA. It is therefore important that all those involved in higher education in Ethiopia acknowledge the status and legitimacy of HERQA as an autonomous body and the processes and criteria it uses. It is also important that all stakeholders feel that HERQA represents, at least to some extent, their own particular interests. This can only be achieved if there is a clear acknowledgement by different stakeholders as to what their interests are, the extent to which they compliment or compete with other stakeholders’ interests and the degree to which dialogue takes place and consensus is reached. HERQA to be effective needs moral legitimacy and support as well as legislative power. Based on research undertaken in 2004 for the Higher Education System Overhaul (HESO) and in 2005 for HERQA and the Higher Education Strategy Centre (HESC) and a reading of relevant literature, this paper explores in more detail what the various stakeholders in the Ethiopian higher education sector may expect or demand from higher education and how their particular ideologies will influence their own individual notions of what is meant by quality. The paper also explores what quality means in an expanding and ‘massified’ higher education system and the lessons for HERQA. For HERQA to ensure quality standards it needs the support and cooperation of all the other stakeholders in Ethiopian higher education and a broad agreement on how quality will be defined and tested. Quality cannot be achieved in isolation and it cannot be imposed from above, it has to be a negotiated communal effort. Eventually all of those involved in the higher education sector will need to work together and come to some common agreement so that we all share a common understanding of what is meant by quality and that we are all ‘doing the right things in the right way’.