World Education Market 2002: <br> Voices of hope give courage to deliver

May 17, 2002

Can distance learning help get South African higher education back on its feet, asks Richard Mawditt

For nearly a decade following the African National Congress initiative, which set the parameters for the Reconstruction and Development Programme, South Africa has produced a range of policy documents on the needs of its higher education system.

It was no easy task to prioritise education (let alone higher education) alongside concerns about health, housing, transport and the many other necessities of a nation in transition. South African higher education is still developing its structure and organisation, and will experience more struggles in seeing through the review of mergers and strategic alliances being considered by education minister Kader Asmal.

While universities and technikons contemplate their strategies, the policy to merge distance learning into a single entity has been at the forefront. The plan to combine the mega-university at Unisa with the distance-learning arm of Vista University and Technikon South Africa has been examined, argued and re-examined with much rigour and no shortage of asperity. Questions of autonomy and academic freedom have more often come before consideration of curriculum and economic benefit. It is pleasing to hear voices of hope in the corridors of South Africa's largest university after a period of uncertainty and acrimony. Changes of principal and the dictate of the minister have sapped staff morale, but with new leadership under Barney Pityana, staff and supporters at Unisa are content to take a positive view and to support the new vice-chancellor's vision. The jury is still out on how the merged institution, if it happens, will be directed.

But how is Unisa progressing and to what extent is it fulfilling its potential in a nation that badly needs quality distance education and in a region that has limited resources for investment?

In 1990, Unisa topped the 100,000 mark for student enrolment and ten years ago provided about one quarter of higher education places in the country. At the peak of enrolments in 1998, Unisa had just over 120,000 students - 20 per cent of the nation's total.

In the past three years, South Africa's university enrolments have declined dramatically. This has been more marked in historically disadvantaged universities with a considerable incline of black students opting for historically white institutions. Students have also shunned distance-learning programmes.

Unisa has seen a drop of almost 15 per cent in enrolments but has partially recovered, with more than 130,000 enrolments in 2001. Much of the decline in the late 1990s did not begin in higher education institutions but in schools. School leaving pass rates plummeted but have recovered of late, although pass rates for mathematics and science for university entry are abysmally low at less than 5 per cent.

South Africa has given due attention to access programmes to enable those who did not make the entry level from school. Unisa's access programmes attracted 34,700 registrations in 2000, the majority of whom were aged between 19 and 34 while just over 66 per cent were black and 54 per cent women. Overall enrolments last year show an average age of 30 and gender composition of 57 per cent female.

Access programmes show an encouraging 85 per cent pass rate with successful progression to formal degree programmes. Unisa has invested in new buildings and land, not only in Pretoria with its impressive flagship but around the nation and with locations in Botswana and Namibia. These buildings enable students without their own facilities to access a working base.

Any institution nowadays with open and distance-learning provision needs to have the technological tools to teach and research. Unisa has made advances from its traditional correspondence programmes, with virtual call centres, interactive voice response units and peer help programmes on the internet. With regional centres providing for those who will not have direct electronic provision for years, Unisa is exceeding its targets for application of new technological tools.

While delivering programmes ranging from diplomas to doctorates, it is questionable whether Unisa is making an impression within the rest of Africa and particularly in the South African Development Community nations. Only some 5 per cent of Unisa's student population are registered from the region. Nevertheless, formal collaborative agreements are in place with ten African countries ranging across the continent from Egypt to Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana and Angola.

South Africa is experiencing competition from new private universities and institutions delivering in the main subjects that bring a short-term benefit from students paying fees, such as business. Unisa's School of Business Leadership has added to its impressive list of business degree programmes an e-commerce qualification, and in the faculty of economic and management sciences the number of certificate and professional qualification programmes is rapidly growing with accreditation determined in Europe and recognised worldwide.

No South African university or technikon is free of problems. Capacity building and leadership is high on the agenda in teaching and management of higher education as it is across the nation in other areas of business and industry. The institutions have to provide for themselves as much as for the wider community, in which there is a dearth of qualified and skilled persons to fill future needs.

The higher education sector is well planned, but can it deliver? A new merged distance-learning institution may have to cope with 250,000 enrolments in the immediate future. The provision of new teachers, business leaders, accountants and professionals is putting demands on those providing distance learning.

Unisa has a seven-point plan and a three-year target and must ask itself whether it has delivered what was promised, and more important, is the platform set for the period ahead?

Richard Mawditt holds the Unesco chair in higher education management at the University of Bath.

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