Monday, June 5, 2023

How do you know your child is not attending a useless tertiary institution?

With the proliferation of local institution there is a need to begin ranking colleges and universities to judge which ones are good and which ones are substandard. Usually what parents and guardians are concerned about is whether their children have been admitted to an undergraduate program: a certificate, diploma or degree. Many don’t worry about where the student has been admitted or about whether the admitting institution is of any good quality. They lack the skill and tools of measuring institutional quality. In this column I wish to consider elements or markers of quality institutions.

Quality infrastructure 

One of the good qualities of a good tertiary institution is quality infrastructure. Students must be taught in good classrooms and lecture theatres which are conducive for learning. The classrooms must be spacious and not crowded and they must be enough. It is not good to have two or three classrooms and lecture theatres when an institution is running multiple programs. There must be enough chairs and tables. The floors and walls must be clean and the floors carpeted. The windows must be in good condition and not broken, allowing excellent ventilation which is critical for learning. The space must be well lit and not dump and dingy. The grounds and space outside the classroom must also be sufficient and not crammed allowing for intellectual engagement between students and staff. Students must be able to sit and gather in various parts of the institution outside to exchange ideas, discuss assignments and work in groups. The space outside a classroom is critical to learning just as the space inside. The lecturers must have offices and not be huddled in a staffroom like secondary school teachers. There must be a library or libraries which provide an intellectual space for research and discovery for students and staff. This has implications on their preparation, student consultation and student assessment. Finally, all our institutions must have (a) well-resourced lab(s) for students to type their work and research online. All the computers must have internet access and be linked to international educational databases. There must also wifi for all students and staff.


There can be no quality institutions without quality staff. Quality staff is to be measured by its training as well as its output. Has the institution employed reputable staff with great CVs? All teaching staff must have a minimum of a Master degree, with senior staff required to have a PhD. While lecturers are usually mistaken for teachers, all teaching staff at our tertiary institutions must be more than teachers. They must also research and publish their work in refereed journals. This must be a requirement. Resources and time must be availed to ensure that this happens. The staff research also must be measured for impact. Is it quoted and considered as quality research by peers in the field? The more a publication is cited, the more influential it is. So the more highly cited research papers a university publishes, the stronger its research output is considered. This will ensure that we develop vibrant and exciting departments which address nation and international challenges. It has been said before that there are really no great universities, only great departments. Great departments will be characterised by conferences and seminars where staff present their research. An inquisitive mind on the part of lecturers will rub on the learners and lead to exciting projects which address both theoretical and practical challenges through research. The quality of staff of an institution must also be measured by the degree of staff collaboration, both through staff exchanges and research collaboration between members of staff from different institutions (both local and international).


One way of determining if an institution is good is by considering the quality of students it attracts as well as the quality of students it graduates. For instance, Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford attract some of the top students in the world and some of their graduates lead in various disciplines and industries around the world. This is in part because such institutions possess some of the best resources: staff, libraries and staff to student ratios. An excellent example locally is the alumni pool of the University of Botswana which is a testament of its enduring excellence over the years. If an institution attracts some of the worst students from BGCSE or low quality graduate students, that may be a sign that it is a poor-quality institution. Good universities and colleges repel lazy and unimaginative students and attract some of the best minds. Additionally, good institutions have a lower staff to student ratio. This facilitates learning and ensures that learners don’t compete for resources. The degree to which an institution attracts international students (and researchers) is also a mark of its international appeal since international reputation will always attract international students. 


The research output of an institution is a perfect mark of its international standing. This is first at the level of graduate students that it produces (Masters and PhDs), and the weight of the academic articles that it publishes in refereed and non-refereed journals as well as the books and book chapters they produce. Good institutions are determined by the body of research that they produce. Such institutions do not only disseminate knowledge, they create it, aggregate it and make it known to the world. It is important for parents to ask the questions: How much research is done by staff at this institution? 

Above I have outlined four critical markers of quality institutions. They are not the only ones, but they are the core ones. I hope parents will not be fooled by sexy institutions with sexy courses and instead ask the right questions before sending their children to superficial and substandard institutions.


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