Does the growth of distance learning mean that Open Universities risk becoming "the University of Last Resort"?


This was the question asked by Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa (Unisa), Mandla Makhanya, on the release of the Department for Higher Education and Training White Paper on Post-School Education and Training. The White Paper proposes provision of distance programmes at TVET and community college levels.

“This is a key development for Unisa on a number of fronts,” continued the Vice-Chancellor, “the most obvious being the removal of Unisa’s relative monopoly as ODL provider in South Africa. We stand to lose students regionally to those universities who provide ODeL courses, and where there is a perception that both the service and the quality of the course will be better than that which Unisa currently offers. We cannot allow that.” In addition, Unisa needs to safeguard against the uptake of its courses by new ODeL providers, as this poses the risk of draining the university of its intellectual capital. Unisa also runs the “very real” risk of losing good, experienced staff to institutions that are embarking on ODL provision, including the two new universities being established this year.Professor Makhanya said that Unisa will have to raise the bar by improving on the quality of its offerings, the levels of its service, its throughput and success rates, and most importantly the calibre of its graduates. “We have a very limited window of opportunity. If we fail, others will become the preferred providers and the past 140 years will ultimately mean very little. Then we will really be the ‘university of last resort’. We must guard against that at all costs,” he said.

An opportunity for the university to reposition itself

Professor Makhanya said the opening up of ODL offers Unisa the opportunity to position itself as the ODL provider nationally and on the continent. “We have 140 years of experience in ODL provision and that means that we have made the mistakes and found the solutions. We have mastered ODL provision successfully where others are yet to do so, and we have been globally acknowledged in that regard. We have built up an international reputation that is the envy of ODL providers across the world.”

We have the tools for education for all, but do we have the will and the skills?

The Secretary General of the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) noted that while in 2007 there were 150 million students worldwide, the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are predicting 400 million students by 2030. “The changes in higher education are dramatic,” he said, “and the only thing stable is change.” Online, distance and campus learning are also converging, he continued, and with this comes an even more diverse higher education landscape.

He said there are five big trends within the framework of globalisation and internationalisation–cost, societal needs, technology, open educational resources, and student needs and expectations. “For the first time in human history we have the tools for education for all, but do we have the will and the skills?” The ICDE Secretary General said possible solutions include government providing a holistic and favourable framework that promotes open online education, supporting and facilitating leadership for change to a more open and online education, incentives and support for faculties and teachers change processes, frameworks and methodologies that put students at the centre, collaboration and cooperation across institutions, countries and platforms, interoperability between solutions, and concrete goals and plans for research and innovation within the field at institutions.

Source:    Unisa News & Media

See also: 

White Paper on Post-School Education and Training

Remarks by Professor Makhanya on the launch of the White Paper

Presentation by the ICDE Secretary General - Global trends in online education. Threats and Opportunities. (on SlideShare)

Summary of the White Paper by Tony Bates