South Africa has proposed a code of conduct that will clamp down on open and distance-learning courses across Africa that are found to be profit-driven or of dubious quality and relevance.
Kader Asmal, the education minister, said that the great potential of distance education to open up access to quality lifelong learning for Africans could "too easily be negated by bad practice". He said bitter experience in higher education locally and elsewhere had made him aware of this.
He said that aside from the "peril of technological determinism", perils in distance education included the emphasis on growing enrolments with little regard for the quality of learning or outputs, poor programmes with little relevance to human-resource needs, and inappropriate curricula.
He said the development of distance programmes by institutions was driven primarily by financial gain, which was unacceptable.
Professor Asmal said that Africa was committed to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's Education for All goals. Distance education could help resource-strapped countries meet ambitious EFA challenges, he said, but only if it was recognised that learning was a profoundly social act and that new technologies alone would not solve Africa's educational challenges.
"We must embrace new technologies, but not at the expense of the social values and moral purpose that is the defining characteristic of humankind," Professor Asmal said.
He said that Africa had to guard against the uncritical introduction of distance education and technologies, or it would be "in danger of once again turning our countries and continent into laboratories for educational experiments for external agencies, the failure of which in past decades has done untold damage to our educational systems".
Professor Asmal cited the 1960s vocationalisation of education, and more recent stress on basic education at the expense of higher education, as examples of this.
He accepted that there were exciting possibilities for distance education in Africa, which could also play a vital role in the continent's New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad).
The African Virtual University and the University of South Africa could play a vital role in enhancing access to tertiary education, as could collaboration in developing programmes and materials, for instance in teacher training. Another possibility would be a Nepad research network to mobilise intellectual capacity in Africa, to tackle development challenges and to act as a springboard for new ideas and their application, he said.
Professor Asmal said that the draft code of conduct for transnational programmes could provide an opportunity for countries to agree to guidelines in keeping with higher education's mission as they faced the challenges of a global market.
It could also provide a point of departure for an all-Africa framework for the sector, including assessing initiatives, exploring the role of information communication technologies, reviewing cost-effectiveness, quality and regulation, and assessing the potential for collaboration, Professor Asmal added.