Attack on apartheid in learning

May 18, 2001

Radical government plans are set to overhaul distance learning in South Africa. Karen MacGregor reports.

Post-apartheid change has been a relatively long time coming to distance learning in South Africa, but is to be as radical as it has been for most other areas. The government's National Plan for Higher Education proposes merging the country's open-learning institutions, cautiously allowing distance provision in contact institutions and enticing adults back into the system.

In South Africa there are about 250,000 higher education students on distance courses and about 350,000 on contact programmes. After rapid growth in the early 1990s, numbers have levelled off and the total of 600,000 students in public higher education is likely to stay constant, though private provision is growing.

The national plan, published by education minister Kader Asmal in February, suggests creating a single distance-education institution by merging the University of South Africa, with its 92,000 students, with Technikon South Africa, which has more than 68,000 students.

The distance centre of Vista University, which has 10,000 students, will be incorporated into the new institution. Vista is a complex, disparate and not very successful institution with seven campuses in three provinces. It will be unbundled and its parts absorbed into other institutions.

The rationale for the merger - which is to be facilitated by a ministry working group and must be completed by June next year - is that a single institution will be best able to seize opportunities for increasing access to distance education locally and in the rest of Africa. "It will also enable economies of scale and scope, thus ensuring that advantage is taken of the rapid changes in information and communications technology," Asmal writes.

The working group will also investigate the role of the new institution in developing a national network of innovation centres in course design and development, using top scholars and teachers, and the broad role of distance education in higher education in the light of international trends and changes in information and communication technology. The merger, the government believes, will create a "formidable infrastructure and array of technical expertise".

A second thrust of state-driven change is directed at distance-education courses offered by contact universities, especially formerly white institutions competing for students in an environment of declining state funding and a limited pool of qualified school-leavers.

Distance-education enrolments in contact institutions grew by 492 per cent between 1993 and 1999 - from 14,000 to 69,000. Asmal says "there are no signs that it is levelling off". Most programmes are undergraduate and targeted at teachers who are upgrading their qualifications. Distance-education developments driven by competition have taken three forms, the national plan reveals: the rapid expansion of distance courses offered by contact institutions; creation of satellite campuses by universities to facilitate delivery of distance education; and the rapid growth of private higher education focusing on low-cost, high-demand, high-profit programmes.

Such developments are potentially damaging, it argues, threatening both dedicated distance institutions and contact institutions in whose areas satellite campuses have been created. They have reinforced apartheid inequalities, and in some "white" institutions, black student numbers have been increased primarily by targeting black students for distance education courses.

The national plan lifts a moratorium that was slapped on new distance courses in contact institutions in February 2000 because of such concerns. This is lifted, but from next year new student places in distance programmes at contact universities will be funded only if they have been approved as part of the institution's plans.

A third imperative for distance education is its need to attract more adult learners - part of the government's unimplemented commitment to lifelong learning - and to increase a participation rate of 15 per cent to a target of 20 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds.

The Council on Higher Education, which conducted the study on which the national plan is based, suggested promoting recognition of prior learning to increase the intake of adult learners. But this has "largely been ignored by institutions", the minister says.

Some institutions introduced professional development programmes targeted mostly at teachers, but there has been "little or no movement" towards attracting workers, mature learners and the disabled, who were denied access to higher education in the past. There are about 1.6 million young adult South Africans who have a school qualification certificate. The government has set up sector education and training authorities to identify skills gaps and shortages, provide bursaries to learners and identify institutions to develop and deliver needed programmes.

The government does not want the uncritical introduction of distance education as a "panacea for the challenges that confront higher education". The notion of the virtual university and role of private and distance learning must be assessed in terms of South Africa's needs.

This, Asmal says, "requires embracing the new technologies, new partnerships and new approaches".

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