How inferior is an education system that produces a President, a Nobel Laureate, or a Chief Justice? asked acclaimed jurist and Chancellor of the University of South Africa, Justice Bernard Ngoepe, at one of the university’s interactions with stakeholders last year.
This question, rhetorical as it is, provided food for thought for many of us in the audience, leaving us pondering whether, as practitioners in the education landscape in the country, we were doing enough to extol the virtues of open distance learning; and beyond that, of all forms of learning.
The question posed by the learned judge crossed my mind once again at the height of the tertiary education registration period early this year. We witnessed during this period the entrenchment of a very disturbing phenomenon, where many of our people – young and old alike – are literally playing down the significant role played by some of our institutions of higher learning in the skilling of our nation; and by implication their strategic role in the growth and development of our economy.
It struck me that many of our people who aspire to obtain an education, particularly recent matriculants, still labour under the misguided belief that one must first attempt to secure entry into contact universities; and only approach institutions such as Unisa and Further Education and Training (FET) colleges as a last resort.
Some of the scribes, who descended on various campuses during this period to experience firsthand what was unfolding there, went as far as carrying out on-the-spot quizzes amongst students on this issue; and their subsequent news reports confirmed the existence of this unfortunate belief.
Most recently, some of my colleagues attended an event where the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Mr Mduduzi Manana, was interacting and sharing his perspective on the country’s higher education sector with stakeholders, most of whom were educators. Many were shocked and dismayed at the vote of no confidence given to some of our institutions of higher learning by the very educators in whose stewardship we have placed our children’s education; with the FET Colleges mostly bearing the brunt of their disdain.
Some were even brave enough to challenge the state to declare FET’s no-go areas for anybody who does not possess a matric, thereby denying entry to others, despite their desire to improve their education. The argument they advance is that the current arrangement diminishes the quality and stature of the FET Colleges; as many matriculants are loathed to attend the same college as those who did not pass matric.
Quite frankly, this is a very simplistic way of looking at things and amplifies our failure as citizens to provide sufficient guidance to the young; or even get them to know, grasp and appreciate the extraordinary challenges faced by our teenage democracy.
Perhaps, in an ideal world, this could be an end-goal worthy of our attention. But we live in a real country with real challenges, especially the challenge of righting the wrongs of our dark history, where many of our people were denied access to education. As matters stand, this country is in dire need of skills, especially trade and technical ones, in order to address the so-called triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Surely we must all be aware that our contact universities cannot be burdened with the sole responsibility of providing the solution to our educational challenges. Some of the skills required by the economy can best be provided by the FETs; whilst open distance learning has, over the years, proved itself as more than capable of supplying the economy with a well-trained and value-adding human resource.
In a country that desires social justice for those previously disadvantaged, it is simply prejudicial and grossly unfair to deny access to educational opportunities to citizens who are willing to be trained and skilled so that they can participate meaningfully in the mainstream economy, whether as providers of labour or as entrepreneurs. If we choose this high road to exclusivity, history will certainly judge us harshly.
The desire by some to denounce the current FET system purely on the basis that it has opened the doors of learning to a wider group of people, irrespective of their educational standing, is akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. It also goes against the grain of one of the pillars of our freedom, the Freedom Charter, which declares boldly that the doors of learning shall be opened to all.
I can only but conclude that only those who do not take the time, nor the effort, to learn about the country’s education landscape, including the role played by institutions such as Unisa, will have the temerity to question the value and quality of our higher education system.
It simply cannot be that the alma mater of former President Nelson Mandela, retired Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Judge, Pius Langa, current Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Judge Dikgang Moseneke, retired archbishop of the Anglican Church Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Vice-Chancellor of University of Cape Town, Dr Mamphele Ramphele, Governor of the Reserve Bank, Ms Gill Marcus, the Chief Executive of First Rand Limited, Mr Sizwe Nxasana, Liberty group Chairman, Mr Saki Macozoma, the Chief Executive of Industrial Development Corporation, Mr Geoffrey Qhena and many other leaders in civil society, business and public life, has produced such extraordinary national and international icons on the basis of an inferior education.
The footprint of successes left by over half-a-million of our graduates in all walks of life – in South Africa, Africa and the world at large – further confirms our status as the most productive university in South Africa, handing our economy access to approximately 34 000 graduates annually. If this does not represent an overwhelming vote of confidence in our offerings, then the sky is not blue.
It cannot be an accident of history that we are the largest university in South Africa and on the African continent; as well as carry the honour of one of the world’s mega-universities, with vocational and academic programmes that enjoy international accreditation.
I do not wish to also give the impression that all is well with our higher education system. One of our biggest challenges throughout the education system from primary to university is the need for a renewed focus on teaching and learning. In my opening of the 2013 academic year at Unisa, I do emphasise that our country is facing a teaching and learning crisis that is evidenced in low throughput and success rates. Teaching and learning must therefore become a priority for all of us. We need to reflect as institutions, teachers and policy makers, on our own work and the impact that it can and does have on our students. Similarly, students must also take greater responsibility and not squander the opportunities that are provided to them if we are to deliver more quality graduates for the economy.
In various policy documents on higher education, in particular the Draft Policy Framework for the Provision of Distance Education in South African Universities, our own government has acknowledged open distance learning as an integral part of the post-school system in South Africa; and Unisa as a leading institution in this regard.
As the only dedicated open distance learning university in the country, with 140 years experience in the field, we remain committed to using this experience to help our country, our people and government to shape our education system into a desirable state; and to put our shoulder to the wheel as part of the national drive to provide South Africa with a well-trained citizenry.
This year, Unisa will celebrate 140 years of pioneering and leading the distance education landscape in the country. We will use the occasion of our celebration as a time to also renew our commitment as a university and a responsible corporate citizen to continue our mission of shaping futures.
I challenge South Africans from all walks of life to embrace education as the key area of life that we must all give attention to. I challenge all South Africans to ensure that each one teaches the next man and woman about the value that all forms of education can add in the development of our nation, including open distance learning, further education and training as well indigenous knowledge systems.
We must work together to eradicate the phantasm that some education systems are more valuable than others. With a proud history that spans fourteen decades in the education trenches, we at Unisa can vouch that they all have a contribution to make towards building a better country.