Mukwambo, Patience (2017). '“Critical being” as quality in higher education: A Zimbabwean case study' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


Generally, studies defining and conceptualising quality in higher education take a human capital standpoint, with relatively little examination from a human development perspective. Human capital positions quality as an evaluative and quantitative tool, emphasising efficiency and effectiveness. Thus, rather than including the teaching and learning process, quality is measured in terms of easily measurable inputs and outputs. Inputs comprise teachers’ qualifications, student/teacher ratios and other resources, while outputs include graduate employability, university rankings, and journal publications. Diverging from the current emphasis on human capital, an analytical focus on human development through the capabilities approach provides an alternative conceptualisation of quality as teaching and learning. Conceptualising quality from a human development perspective focuses on the role, practices and content of education, with inputs playing a supportive role. Because most research on quality is conducted in global North contexts, this paper presents a global South perspective by using Zimbabwe as a case study. This highlights divergent contextual and practical variations in applying conceptions of quality.


Part of a PhD study where qualitative data was collected in three phases at the macro, meso and micro levels, the paper is informed by interviews conducted at all three levels. The macro phase comprised interviews with policy makers at the national quality assurance agency, the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education (ZIMCHE). At the meso levels, interviews were conducted with 10 university quality assurance representatives. The micro level included interviews with deans, lecturers and students from two case study sites; a public and a private university. The paper uses Barnett’s notion of “critical being” as an indicator of quality teaching and learning. According to Barnett, critical being is a “thick” notion comprising critical thinking, critical self-reflection and critical action and each subsequent level offers an advanced form of alternative possibilities of understanding, from critical thinking to critical thought to critique. An important aspect of critical being is that it cannot just be understood as a form of individual action or mental state but has to be situated in relation to the self and society, thus linking it to ideas of agency, voice and participation.


While acknowledging the existence of a constrained socio-economic and political environment as a negative conversion factor, the study examines and argues for higher education playing an active role in nurturing critical citizens. This calls for a more inclusive and expansive conceptualisation of quality as well as critical thinking methodologies and reflexive practices as part of learning.  The empirical study revealed some challenges faced in promoting critical reflexivity and action amongst students in Zimbabwe. Criticality was mostly limited to critical thinking, operationalised through student understanding and knowledge application. This necessitated the need to rework critical being to better suit a non-ideal developing country context. Despite these challenges, the paper underscores the importance of higher education in nurturing critical graduates, capable of not just participating in economic development but also building a socially just society. Although Zimbabwe is used as a case study, the paper highlights the importance of capabilities such as critical being for both young and mature democracies, especially in the light of existing inequalities and the need for social change.



Keywords higher education, critical being, quality


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