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Unisa online - Students as customers of Unisa

Prof Assim Hashim (Nicky) Alpaslan

For any big or small corporation, there is a need to grapple continuously with the question “how are we doing?” and gauge how satisfied their customers are with the services received and delivered. Institutions of higher education are not exempted from this practice. However, universities are not normally seen as institutions selling products, until one adopts the perspective where students are seen as customers and the institution as a service provider.

Prof Assim Hashim (Nicky) Alpaslan, from the Department of Social Work at Unisa delivered his inaugural lecture entitled “Hellopeter! How are they doing? The perceptions, experiences and recommendations of social work students as customers of an open and distance learning university” on 18 July 2012.

In his paper, Alpaslan positioned social work students as customers of Unisa. He assessed students’ perceptions, experiences and recommendations about Unisa and about studying towards becoming social workers at an open and distance learning university. Prof Alpaslan used the website as a backdrop for presenting the aforesaid.

His paper originated from an explorative, descriptive Q-methodology study undertaken with the aim to explore and describe social work student customers’ perceptions about their social work studies at Unisa, “It only reports on the findings deduced specifically from the free comments made by them,” he said.

Introducing his topic, Prof Alpaslan said that institutions of higher education, due to their core business, should be regarded as “service industries” and objective-wise, these institutions’ primary concerns are threefold:

  • to promote individuals’ academic development by way of providing in-depth knowledge and skills through teaching and learning
  • to develop new knowledge through vigorous research and the dissemination of research findings for the benefit of society
  • to render community services to societies by means of consultation and engaging themselves in community-orientated service activities

Alpaslan said that when labelling institutions of higher education as “service industries”, the consumers of the former’s services can no longer only be regarded as “students” but should be viewed as “customers” who know their rights and demand quality and effective service delivery.

In emphasising his point, he drew some newspaper clips of Unisa students going on strike, protesting against higher fees. He went on to sample a few complaints that were posted on “Hellopeter” – an online customer service site where consumers can report treatment they receive from any supplier – negative and/or positive – quickly and free.

In his lecture, he presented the experience-based perceptions (both positive and negative) faced by Social Work students whilst studying at Unisa and the Department of Social Work. He added that perceiving students as customers changes the way Unisa will view its students and the levels of service the students will receive from the university.

Alpaslan went on to highlight the difference between studying Social Work through ODL and the traditional mode of studying social work at residential universities. He made reference to the fact that offering social work education programmes through ODL has increased world-wide in recent decades.  In spite of the former, scholars pointed to the fact that distance education has been, and continues to be criticised as a mode for teaching social work and has provoked considerable debate amongst social work educators in recent years, with critics and proponents almost adding up in equal measure.

He mentioned a number of advantages and disadvantages of studying social work through ODL by pointing out the differences between the former and contact universities. As the lecture was about levels of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with services offered to social work students at Unisa, Alpaslan listed a number of recommendations that were suggested by students. These included bringing back the call centre, employing more staff, having more contact classes, capping the number of student enrolments, more contact teaching (i.e. workshops and discussion classes) and many other suggestions.

He arrived at the conclusion that their perceptions on how it is for them to study Social Work at Unisa were mostly experience-based or informed and the experienced satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction can be best described as a short-term attitude based on the evaluation of their experience with an education service supplied. He continued by saying that “Unisa and the Department of Social Work is not simply doing ‘badly’, or only performing ‘well’”. In qualifying this, he noted that “the customers seem both simultaneously satisfied and dissatisfied with similar and different aspects related to service delivery and the quality of services offered by the service industry and the specific service department under scrutiny”.

Prof Alpaslan stated that the unsolicited recommendations provided by the participants, in a sense, confirm the customers’ continuous belief in Unisa as an ODL-brand, and while open and distance learning in the context of social work has been labelled as “the province of the others – a minority”, in this respect, Unisa is fulfilling its social mandate in promoting social justice for those seeking social work education, but, who lack the resources for gaining it through the traditional means.

Furthermore, and specifically in the context of developing countries, social work through distance education has the potential for meeting one of the most serious and long-standing needs in social services – the need for people to be trained in rural and remote communities and remain within these communities to practise as social workers, and through their practice, impact on the social and economic circumstances in and upliftment of their communities.

Apart from the customers’ belief in the Unisa-brand, excerpts taken from the participants’ comments speak of their gratitude towards Unisa and the Department of Social Work:

I love the strategy that Unisa uses to reach out to the less-fortunate”.

“Thank you social work department for your empowerment … thank you for giving us the opportunity to learn social work… [and] to be a student in your department …”.

“I appreciate each and every moment with my studies … thank you once again to have this time with you”.

“…I enjoy studying Social Work at Unisa … I can and will recommend this course to anyone anytime with all my confidence. I want to congratulate you for the good work you are doing at Unisa”.

Click here to read Prof Alpaslan’s full address

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