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NCHE to abandon 'expired' tag on university courses

NCHE executive director Prof Mary Okwakol (L) joins the Victoria University Chancellor Prof Opuda Asibo (C) and Sudhir Ruparelia to cut cake recently

NCHE executive director Prof Mary Okwakol (L) joins the Victoria University Chancellor Prof Opuda Asibo (C) and Sudhir Ruparelia to cut cake recently

Following a public outcry, the National Council of Higher Education (NCHE) will henceforth cease to use the term "expired" to describe programmes that are due or overdue for re-assessment at universities and higher institutions of learning. 

According to the executive director of NCHE Prof Mary Okwakol, the term "expired" has been misinterpreted and not used in accordance with the defined regulations of quality assurance for higher education universities and other tertiary institutions issued in 2008.  

Okwakol explained that the term was used to indicate programmes that have reached the end of their accreditation period and therefore due for re-assessment.  

"I would like to inform the country about the term expiry. In December of 2008 the then governing council of the National Council for Higher Education approved guidelines that require institutions to submit programmes for reassessment. The term expiry in these guidelines was intended to indicate that the prescribed term of 5 or ten years before reassessment had elapsed," said Okwakol.

Okwakol further explained that fact the a course or programme is due for re-accreditation does not imply that it is invalid. 

"In view of the controversy, the term expiry is causing, the National Council for Higher Education will have an acceptable substitute soon," she added.

Speaking to URN in an earlier interview, Prof Mouhamad Mpezamihigo, the vice chancellor at Kampala International University (KIU) questioned the justification of labeling a programme as expired. To him, also courses that need to be re-assessed could not be expired and the term sounded vague.  

“Expired? How?” the vice chancellor wondered. He further added; “So you can’t say it has expired, because if you say it has expired it means even graduates who get out there will be affected. What should happen is the review of the curriculum and of course, the National Council is mandated to come again and check whether you are maintaining the standards. So the confusion is about expiry, what is expired?” 

As indicated on the NCHE website, numerous programmes in both public and private academic institutions have reached their “expiration” dates in the past five years. These programmes include both graduate and undergraduate courses, and the duration of “expiration” varies across different academic institutions.

Many of these programs have “expired” for at least five years, yet universities have continued to admit students contradicting the regulations set forth for higher education. Some institutions have programmes that expired more than a decade ago without submitting them for re-assessment.  

However, regardless of any potential changes in the terminology used, Okwakol, who herself has previously served as a vice-chancellor, emphasizes that universities should not ignore or disregard the importance of re-accreditation. 

"Reassessment of programmes is best practiced to ensure quality and relevance of graduates. This necessitates establishing whether the key aspects upon which accreditation was granted in the first instance are still in place or have been improved. Universities and other tertiary institutions will be required to comply," added Okwakol.

The council is also contemplating a review and complete revamp of its re-accreditation process. During the review, one aspect that will likely receive attention is the duration for which programmes should be allowed to run before undergoing reassessment. As per the existing regulations, the council accredits master's and other undergraduate programs to operate for a period of five years, while PhD programmes can run for a duration of ten years before they are reassessed.

Some vice-chancellors have recently argued that the given period for reassessment is limited and may not allow institutions to conduct thorough evaluations. Prof Mpezamihigo, for example, expressed concern that for a course taught over three years, they might require additional years beyond the given two in order to adequately assess the graduates' performance in the real world, among other considerations.

On the other hand, there are academicians who believe that reassessment can commence even while the program is still running. Prof John Robert Ikoja-Odongo, vice chancellor of Soroti University, supports this perspective. He argues that in the fast-paced world, we live in, certain programs need to undergo internal reviews of at least 15 per cent per year, rather than waiting for the complete accreditation period to elapse.

"The programmes are akin to living organisms. Every day, new information, methods, and other developments emerge, and it is crucial for universities to stay abreast. This necessitates teaching staff to consistently conduct internal reassessments of the programs and their curricula. By the time the required reassessment period set by the NCHE arrives, there will be minimal adjustments needed," noted Ikoja-Odongo.

Okwakol states that a final decision regarding the adjustment of timeframes has not been reached. However, she mentions that on June 1 and 2, the council will hold meetings with vice-chancellors and principals to initiate discussions on this matter, along with other pressing issues.

"The periods between reassessment of programmes are being reviewed to allow ample time for evaluation of graduates and determine which emerging issues should be incorporated in the programmes. We're doing this at the request of institutions of higher learning. I would also like to say that normally when these decisions are taken, they take into account views that come from institutions," said Okwakol.

Meanwhile, an academic staff member at one of the Kampala-based universities expressed belief that the entire re-assessment process is flawed. The staff member highlighted the fact that many programmes are developed by university staff, and sometimes these same individuals are hired as consultants by NCHE to review those programs.

"It is ironic," the staff member remarked. "You work on a programme as a staff member, and then you or another faculty member gets hired to review it. What outcome do you expect? Where is the quality assurance? I want to think this is why some universities, like Makerere, occasionally overlook the process. It is almost useless," the staff member criticized, questioning the NCHE's ability to fulfill their duties.

But Okwakol expressed little surprise and acknowledged that it is indeed true that the council hires consultants, some of whom are academic staff from universities.

"We don't have sufficient staff within the council, so consultants are brought in to assist. It is possible that during the hiring process, we might unintentionally select individuals with conflicts of interest regarding specific programs," she explained.

Okwakol, however, added that for future reviews, they plan to address this issue by requiring individuals to declare any conflicts of interest before they are hired.

"Recently we were discussing that and going forward before a team is sent out we're going to require each to declare any conflict of interest...because somebody may be related in one way or another to that institution then you send that person to verify certain things. You may not expect an objective report," said Okwakol.

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