The F-word – How do we define quality education?

2012-03-10 11:11

Stories about the living conditions of students, particularly at historically black universities, shine the light on the challenges facing higher education and on the skills needed by the economy.

One word that gets bandied about in these debates is that ill-defined concept called “quality” education.
Universities decry the “quality” of matriculants they get.

Employers are unimpressed with the “quality” of graduates they employ. Yet we do not spend enough time trying to get to the bottom of what we mean by this and how we can achieve it.

This debate is often exploited by those who seek to discredit the value of humanities as an area of learning.

It is one thing to argue that the humanities are oversubscribed, but it is a totally different thing to cast this area of learning as a waste of time and money.

Yes, the economy needs engineers and artisans, but a society also needs a better understanding of what holds it together and what can be done to ensure
it flourishes.

Quality education must respond to this – on the living conditions of students, not just the content of curriculums.

Students may have the best professors in the world, but if they are hungry and homeless in the process, their education cannot be called “quality”.

It is also not enough to assume that simply because it is “income-based education” – meaning it will give the student better opportunities of earning an income – it is therefore “quality education”.

It is possible to get a “quality” education and still not interpret your surroundings or function in a way that you are a credit to the education you got.

Reducing quality to the content of curriculums can cause the educated not to see the woods for the trees and render them unhelpful in trying to understand society or respond to its needs.

University of Free State vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen, for example, who used his column in a national newspaper to say that providing universities to two provinces that do not have one would be a waste of money.

Jansen bemoaned that in President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address “the word ‘quality’ is completely absent, but the word ‘inequality’ shows up eight times”.

So despite or because of the “quality” education the professor has received, inequality does not strike him as an issue deserving the attention the president gives it.

The learned man reckons that because government has been languid in funding existing varsities and building new schools, it should not be giving the youth of Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape the privilege of studying closer to home and reducing the chances of them living in subhuman conditions like those who need only take a bus to and from classes.

I shudder to imagine what would happen if the state were to take the professor’s advice and did nothing new until it had perfected its current projects.

One would have expected that Jansen would know first-hand how the added costs of accommodation and transport are an artificial barrier to many bright but poor young people’s desire to acquire higher education.

Alas, we have a university vice-chancellor who needs to be told that many families of poor students simply cannot afford to have two grocery lists – one for the student and another for the rest of the household.

The professor’s response that Northern Cape and Mpumalanga students go where their forebears have gone previously is the academic equivalent of asking serfs begging for bread to have cake.

We need a sober discussion on the meaning of quality and to do this with the aim of equipping the young person who will be unleashed into the economy and society with the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the economy while understanding the society they work and live in.

» Follow me on Twitter @fikelelo

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