Unisa is a giant mess and its well-paid suits need to sort it out now
It might be too big to fail, but its steady collapse is putting too many vulnerable people in jeopardy
Is Unisa too big to fail? The tragic stories about this once great institution are endless.
Nobody picks up the phone to answer a query. The study guides arrived the day after the examination. The wrong materials arrived. Boxes of texts were piled up in storage for weeks without being dispatched to students. Students could not register because the system was down at critical times. The supervisor disappears and does not give feedback on dissertation chapters in reasonable time. A student submitted an assignment (A) which the university said was not received and then the student resubmitted the identical assignment (B) but this time both came back with one marked a fail (A) and the other a comfortable pass (B).
In recent years I have heard countless versions of these stories that I can only assume they are true. So I tried calling on behalf of one of many students frustrated by not getting a response to an urgent query with the deadline for registration looming. A welcoming secretary promised to deliver my message but no response came even after I also sent an e-mail. So I posted my concerns on Facebook (25,000 followers) which automatically shows on my Twitter feed (106,000 viewers), and several Unisa colleagues immediately called me offering to help – and they did.
This, of course, helps me but it does not solve the systemic problem that lets down thousands of students every year.
Unisa’s history is one of great achievements. It is the oldest distance education institution in the world and was the first examining authority for our oldest universities. It at one time boasted some of the pre-eminent scholars of SA, including the information scientist Archie Dick or the theologian David Bosch or constitutional law expert Marinus Wiechers. Many of our foremost public figures are proud graduates of Unisa, among whom Nelson Mandela certainly enjoys pre-eminence.
So how did such a great institution collapse?
For one, it grew too big. While there were earlier attempts to cap numbers at about 200,000 students, Unisa has grown to more than 400,000 registered students from SA, the continent and around the world. More than 100,000 of those enrolled are in teacher education, which means that Unisa, as a failing university, can have an outsized negative impact on one of the most vulnerable sectors of our society – ordinary public schools.
It did not take long for the systems to collapse, from the IT infrastructure to the delivery systems to the online support function. Worse, there simply has been no management capacity to turn this sinking ship around. Everybody is frustrated, from officials in government to hardworking staff of the institution to the fee-paying students.
Why did Unisa not stop the expansion when it became clear the system was not coping? I do not know, but one thing is clear: they once made a lot of money and around 2011, I am reliably told, Unisa could bank more than R700m in profit. That’s a lot of money.
What can be done?
One of the most sensible recommendations I have heard is to spin off the Unisa Science Campus in Florida (the former Technikon South Africa merged with a Vista University unit) with its world-class facilities into a separate university specialising in science, technology and engineering; that would certainly be a boost for the oversold 4IR (fourth industrial revolution) and make the effective management of this unwieldly mass a much more realisable objective.
Unisa is too big to fail but it can be made smaller to succeed. It offers a niche market in SA to a number of constituencies with overlapping needs, such as adults in the workplace for whom part-time study is attractive; students who did not get access to residential universities but who now have an distance education option; teachers who need to upgrade their qualifications; or young interns in schools who are required to pursue their teaching credentials through Unisa while they learn on the job.
A long time ago I finished my BSc degree but desperately needed to earn money and to start paying off my bursary loan. Technically, I was an unqualified teacher and with a degree alone, I was paid peanuts. I loved the solution on offer: to do my HED (teacher’s diploma) through Unisa. I enjoyed the experience so much that I continued on to the BEd degree (then an honours qualification) and this enabled me to continue to advanced studies overseas. I could not have done it except through distance education.
The ideal would be for the Unisa Council to fulfill its duty and make the resolution of these problems its number one governance priority. It should give the well-paid management a deadline for sorting out this mess. If that does not happen, the minister should intervene. Too many lives are at stake.