Gearing universities up for the future

Distance and online education has been changing the educational landscape for years now, but questions are being raised by academics regarding whether or not universities are geared for the future and attuned to emerging developments. There are important issues around growing capacities, with greater emphasis on leadership and discourse on governance in higher education.

Unisa’s principal and vice-chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya, speaking at the recently-held International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) conference at Sun City in the North West Province, said he believes sustainable, quality higher education is the epicentre of nation-building and development as it undergirds the global desire for better societies. 

He questioned whether there are adequate resources — skills, capacities, expertise and funds — to achieve the aspirations of higher education. “I want to challenge us to broaden our thinking to the opportunities of an integrated, articulated post-school system. I believe that if there is consideration for broadening access and absorption, then universities alone will not be the answer,” Makhanya told conference delegates.

He said the sustainability of higher education in the post-2015 agenda will require a leadership cadre with multi-disciplinary talents and understanding of issues such as public governance able to “integrate the academic project, accountability, institutional autonomy and quality to best effect within the university environment”.

“Governance is aimed at ensuring transparency and accountability of university leadership and monitoring and maintaining oversight of the university management. On the other hand, it seeks to maximise institutional performance, success and sustainability in the context of the mission and strategy of the university. Thirdly, it ensures stakeholder management, representation and democracy in the way the university is led and managed. 

Massification of education

“However, with the introduction of governance imperatives into the university environment, there is emerging demand for regulation, administration management, reporting, risk and compliance regimens. The current debate is whether focus on governance in higher education has come at the cost of innovation, creativity and academic autonomy.

“Massification of education has resulted in universities increasing in size, with their regulation moving from centralisation to a decentralised supervisory framework from government.”

According to Makhanya, accusations of waste and inefficiency, coupled with a declining economy, have resulted in institutions becoming more entrepreneurial in their operations, significantly increasing both the complexity of the organisation and the potential for wayward behaviour. “Combined, this demands a more professional approach to governance.”

“I suggest that universities can balance the two and actualise the benefits of good governance, without compromising the academic project, institutional autonomy and academic freedom. It just requires new ways of thinking.”

Makhanya discussed the academic project, describing the challenge of today’s graduates exiting from university “with an understanding of the subjects taught but little else. Is it the university’s role to develop students into engaged and responsible, ethical citizens or is it the lecturers’ function to produce a discipline-specific expert? Can a balance on both sides be achieved?

“The central pillar of quality, which reflects on both the academic project and the sustainability of the university, must be recognised,” he continued. “A critical concern in providing learning is how to provide it in a manner that reaches the greatest number of people, while ensuring [a] quality offering.

“Open distance online learning is sometimes seen as the panacea for massification and the opportunity to bridge geographic distances. However, experience dictates that there are many factors that influence achievement of the optimal state, for example, it is non-negotiable that open distance learning systems must be coupled with responsible access, success and increased throughput.

Student support

“As we become increasingly focussed on online and e-learning modalities, students must be equipped to take advantage of the affordances of technology. We should not, however, make assumptions that because students can competently use gadgets like smartphones and games, they will also use them for study purposes.

“Students need to learn how to study online and at a distance — leveraging media-rich content and having access to strong student support services. 

Without more detailed insight into the pedagogy of e-learning, success and throughput will remain a challenge. Coupled with this is available infrastructure, including bandwidth and networks. Connnectivity constraints and costs are also vital considerations.”

Makhanya stressed that in the post 2015 agenda, learning needs to be revitalised in the context of the e-learning model, to facilitate student interactions in virtual learning environments.

“Universities must begin designing the learning environment more as an ecosystem than a curriculum. Universities must know their students — student profiling and business intelligence are becoming increasingly important. 

Data analytics today enables far more nuanced, systemic information that can guide both policy options and development interventions. We should be using it much more.

“Pivotal in achieving the agenda for post-school education is academic leadership that understands and subscribes to the principles of care and respect for students, and has the will to make a difference.

“I would like to see a global research project where universities participate in an assessment exercise to gauge their standing in the areas of governance, academic innovation and e-learning, student support and quality, the results of which should be shared among the participating institutions. Individual universities might also use them to identify collaboration partners for growth and development.

“The theme of this conference is ‘growing capacities for sustainable distance e-learning provision’. We need to understand the true uptake and capability of universities today to successfully deliver the scale and quality of services required in higher education and to take on new responsibilities and occupy new spaces in a sustainable manner,” Makhanya concluded.

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Rebecca Haynes
Guest Author

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