ARGENTINA is the eighth largest country in the world, about one third the size of Europe but with a population of only 33 million. Of these, some 12 million people are located in the province of Buenos Aires, three million in the city itself. There are three other major cities - Cordoba with 1.2 million inhabitants, Rosario with a million and Mendoza with 600,000.
The country has a long-established university tradition, dating back to colonial times. There are some 70 university-type institutions, funded either from federal sources or provincial budgets (most of Argentina's 23 provinces have a university in the state capital). Private universities (some funded by the Catholic church) are on the increase, focusing on the main centres of population.
University numbers by European standards are enormous: the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA) is the largest in the country (177,000) followed fairly closely by Cordoba (150,000). Most students expect to work and study at the same time, and the majority of staff will also combine professional work with teaching and research. First degrees are completed in about six years, although the UBA is attempting to bring this down to four.
Higher education has grown in recent years, and although this is in part through the creation of private universities and the expansion of existing ones, distance-learning schemes are growing in number.
This is apparent in the economics faculty at the UBA, where a quarter of the 60,000 students are enrolled at distance in a scheme that was first introduced five years ago. It is now viewed as the key strategy in meeting the massive demand for places that has built up in the past two years especially. Marta Mena, responsible for educational method and organisation in the faculty, and vice-president of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, places particular importance on the development of a bi-modal system, whereby distance routes are available to students who in practice study part-time anyway and may have to travel some distance to the campus.
Her aim is for students to be offered the same quality of learning, drawing on the same staff and facilities as those who attend formal classes, but using a wider range of delivery techniques, backed up by support tutorials out of peak hours. Library services and learning materials are used in common, and staff expertise can be built up in both the attendance and distance areas.
There is some cross-fertilisation between the two with the introduction of more audiovisual materials into classroom teaching and the use of on-line methods to record all student progress. New methods of course delivery are being devised, with plans to build on the concept of the electronic classroom this year, taking advantage of the rapid growth of the Internet in Argentina.
At the same time, new ways of providing students with study support and guidance are being considered, for although distance students are being offered the same syllabus (to the extent of sitting examinations alongside conventional students) it is recognised that they will have different requirements in terms of feedback and tutorial support. In addition to which, distance enables the university to attract a wider audience than before, with particular reference to women and older age groups who are attracted to more flexible ways of study. This will allow them to combine study with work or family responsibilities inside a programme that can be modified easily to meet any particular needs.
However, the UBA is not extending its distance programmes outside its normal catchment area (although that covers one third of the country's population). The presence of an existing university network nationwide plus the growth in open and distance learning elsewhere means that it is possible to focus on the bi-modal pattern and develop strategies for providing support for students within existing systems.
That in itself is a major task given the state of some of the infrastructure and the need to expand resources such as libraries to meet the demands of a growing university population (the catalogue has recently gone on-line for example). Resources have also had to be found to ensure a high level of staff training. This is being encouraged because a greater flexibility in types of delivery could attract new teaching staff.
Participation in the distance scheme is voluntary for the time being, although it might be viewed as a refreshing change from facing average group sizes of 80.
Staff may also be attracted by the prospect of reinforcing their professional activities by combining them with university teaching, and they are used to doing in-service training in their own particular fields anyway.
There is evidence to suggest, in fact, that distance courses are catching on in this area too - the UBA has devised distance courses for tax inspectors at the insistence of staff unions who felt that members in the Buenos Aires district were at a greater advantage in terms of upgrading because they were able to attend classes leading to promotion.
Other organisations are looking at open and distance learning seriously on a smaller scale.
Some private universities are introducing a distance learning element in conjunction with foreign providers - the Instituto San Vicente de Paul has recently set up its own open and distance learning branch in conjunction with la Teleuniversite du Quebec.
For postgraduates in particular, the opportunities to study specialised courses at a high level, which may not be available locally, must be attractive, especially as the time and cost of travel can be daunting in a country the size of Argentina. A number of United Kingdom universities already run joint programmes with local providers, and this trend looks set to grow with a number of other countries as well.
Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions at City University. He has been working on the development of a distance scheme with the Colegio de Traductores Publicos de Buenos Aires.