/ 26 March 2010

Focus on teaching, Unisa told

Focus On Teaching

Unisa has been told to improve ‘substantially” at its core business of teaching and learning before aspiring to be a top research university.

Unisa is South Africa’s biggest university — it has about 280 000 students and 10 000 staff members — and is the country’s only dedicated distance-learning institution.

The Council on Higher Education (CHE) undertook a quality audit of it in 2008 and has now publicly released a summary of its findings. The audit was based on, among other things, Unisa’s self-evaluation according to the criteria of the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) and the committee’s main site visit in August that year.

The report ‘suggests that Unisa should downscale its aspirations to become a research university in order to prioritise the improvement and consolidation of its ability to provide excellent tuition across all its colleges and qualifications offerings in an efficient and effective manner”.

The audit highlights the importance of Unisa in the higher learning sector: a third of the total number of students in the South African system is enrolled at the institution, half of them first-time entrants who want a qualification rather than to complete one or two subjects. But Unisa’s low ‘through-put” rate does not compare well with similar institutions.

The report urges Unisa to attend to problems that range from bad service and system failures,
which are causing student discontent, to heavy staff workloads, which inhibits good teaching.

In some cases lecturer-student ratios of 1:750 and 1:4 000 have been recorded. The report says that ‘mistakes in the processing of student registrations have far-reaching consequences for students’ progress in their chosen qualifications. Whatever problems found in Pretoria in the registration, these were far worse in [Unisa’s five] regional centres.”

The report highlights the need for appropriately designed courses and learning materials that must reach students in time, well-conceptualised study guides and trained tutors.

The report recommends that Unisa should pay attention to the quality of its tuition, particularly with regard to Africa and the growing number of international students.

The report notes complaints about course material lacking relevance in other African contexts — examples were often South African — and a lack of staff to support students adequately.

Given the challenges in teaching and learning, the report says the panel was ‘not persuaded that the financial and human resource investment of becoming a research university can be handled simultaneously with these other challenges”. At the time of the audit, fewer than 10% of its students were postgraduates.

Typically research-intensive institutions in South Africa have a 30% to 40% enrolment at postgraduate level. The majority of Unisa’s postgraduate students were doing honours and there were only 681 doctoral students.

The report raises concerns over the ‘extraordinary load” Unisa’s research ambition places on senior academics who have to supervise postgraduate students. It notes that there are departments with 1  300 master’s students and individual academics with up to 120 honours students, not to mention master’s and doctoral students. This affected the quality of supervision.

The report recommends that Unisa should screen those applying to do postgraduate studies because some did not have the language and research capacity to tackle advanced studies. Although the report says that the Council on Higher Education supports the development of research at Unisa, research in niche areas and areas of strengths should be better defined.

In what has been read as criticism of the vice-chancellor professor Barney Pityana, the report calls for ‘firm and clear leadership” of a ‘dauntingly complex organisation in terms of size and processes” to prioritise and pace the required changes.

Pityana has served two terms and is retiring. The new Unisa was created under his leadership and the report praises it for the manner in which it used the merger with the former Technikon SA and Vista University Distance Education Campus to rethink its mission and vision, and its implications for learning, teaching and research.

Pityana referred to the report in a speech at the opening of the academic year and said: ‘We have resolved that we will engage the report critically but with integrity, but not in a defensive or apologetic posture. ‘We undertake to use the report as a platform for institutional and creative deliberations and to prepare improvement plans to be submitted.”

In his speech, Pityana said Unisa ‘was experiencing improvements in success, through-put and research outputs”. ‘Last year the university graduated 21 550 diplomas and degrees [compared with about 13 800 in 2006], among them 654 master’s and 113 doctoral degrees.”

He added that there was an improvement in examination pass rates, from 52% in 2005 at the time of the merger, to 56% for the 2009 October-November examinations season.

‘That success rate is wi thin reach of the target of 56% provided for us by the department of higher education and training and which we expect to exceed this year,” he said.