News & Events

Unisa’s senior academics set the record straight

In an opinion piece published by the Sunday Times, three academic executives responded to sentiments that have been expressed in the media which are injurious to Unisa’s academics, scholars, students and alumni. Here is what Professor Veronica McKay (Acting Vice-Principal, Teaching, Learning, Community Engagement and Student Support), Professor Bhekie Mamba (Executive Dean, College of Science, Engineering and Technology) and Professor Kgomotso Masemola (Executive Dean, College of Human Sciences) wrote:

Professor Veronica McKay, Professor Bhekie Mamba and Professor Kgomotso Masemola

There has been a lot of undue brouhaha in the media since the mysterious arrival of the Ministerial Task Team's report which has been aired across social media. With no intention to enter the fray on the as-yet-unauthorised report, we, as university academic managers, deans and senior faculty members entrusted with teaching, research and engaged scholarship, feel the need to ensure that the narrative is not captured by one-sided media discussions that target the academic project. We respond here to a few of the sentiments that have been expressed in the media which are injurious to our academics, our scholars, students and alumni.

We start with the most recent. We are disappointed that Professor Nico Cloete, a well-respected peer employed at another university, has chosen to use an anonymous letter from what seems to be a single Unisa employee and then generalise this in the media. We are surprised that he did not communicate with any respected Unisa academics to verify and contextualise the information before publishing.

It appears the anonymous complainant’s reason for writing to Professor Cloete in the wee hours was because he/she was ostensibly fearful to raise certain issues. The university has many conduits for employees to lodge anonymous grievances should anyone feel the need – methods which are much more effective than writing anonymous letters to others outside of the university.

The midnight complainant provided as evidence a six-year old public report compiled by the College of Human Sciences in June 2017, which was an early intervention to mitigate irregularities. Had he/she (and the assisting cohorts, evidently) studied the report, he/she would have noticed that it outlines a number of strategies to mitigate plagiarism that have been in place since 2017 and, since its publication, the university has continuously evolved and enhanced these. Universities worldwide have similar challenges and mitigating these challenges is a full-time enterprise.

It is worth mentioning at this point that approximately 1 200 of our 3 600 modules are small modules with fewer than 500 students; many of these have half a dozen or so students, which makes identifying plagiarism relatively easy.

Since the onset of the pandemic Unisa, like universities across the world, has relied on online methods to assess students. We have ensured the proctoring of all exit modules to ensure the integrity of the examinations and qualifications. Whilst the disgruntled nocturnal writer alleges that our implementation is "haphazard", we disagree. Our online systems and processes are now well institutionalised and our policies are aligned to this new mode. Our current examinations are the largest online examinations Unisa, and certainly South Africa, has ever held. And, yes, there are glitches, but the quantum is negligible if one considers the enrolment of 380 000 students, and the 9 million assignments and 2.5 million examinations we deal with.

We are surprised by the complainant’s allegations regarding the use of multiple-choice assessments and continuous assessments. Both are standard modes of assessment used by universities across the world, even at top-tier universities in the US and UK. Multiple-choice assessments are ideal for online assessments and, to ensure their integrity, Unisa randomises the questions, and proctors the examinations which are written against the clock. The mode does not mean that the examinations are easier than constructed-answer responses unless questions are poorly set. And this is where quality assurance has an important role to play. This year, only 402 of Unisa’s 3 600 modules were assessed by way of multiple choice. Almost all of these are NQF level 5 and 6 modules and not higher-level modules, and only a fifth of the modules are continuously assessed, often as a requirement of professional bodies. This pedagogically sound way of assessing entails a series of formative low-stake assessments, and the mode is common elsewhere.

Unisa’s Assessment Policy makes provision for lecturers to utilise any methods of assessment provided that any request to change the mode of assessment is approved at the Senate Teaching and Learning Committee. To select a mode of assessment and then to cry foul afterwards is surely irresponsible.

Let us now turn to the anonymous writer’s questioning as to whether we monitor high pass rates. Yes we do! All deviations in student scores are monitored. The chairs of all departments have access to student analytic dashboards that are updated each day, allowing for the interrogation of live data on a range of issues including fluctuations in assignment and examination marks.

We note also the anonymous complainant’s contention that he/she is feeling the increasing burden of the quality assurance measures that are currently in place. Unisa’s huge student numbers demand that we learn from our experience of the CHE’s Quality Enhancement Project to ensure quality. We do not apologise for this. And we are also aware that in the current context of the CHE’s institutional audits there are additional quality requirements; they are certainly not, as the complainant puts it, "a veneer" for anything – they are requirements!

Some of the media articles have erroneously compared Unisa with other “university types”. Unisa is a Comprehensive Open Distance Learning institution with a unique and important role in the South African public university system.

Unisa provides a range of study options including higher certificates, diplomas and degrees at undergraduate level, as well as a range of postgraduate qualifications. Using the audited 2019 DHET data, the latest publicly available data, it is clear that 92% of Unisa’s enrolments are for undergraduate qualifications, and of these 63.1% are degrees. Of the 8% postgraduate enrolments – which interestingly exceed the total intake of both the UCT and SU –  22.8% are in master's and doctoral programmes.

The DHET 2019 data shows that Unisa’s weighted research outputs ratio in 2019 was 1.56, the second highest of the comprehensive universities, and up from 1.47 in 2018.  The media articles mistakenly, in our view, compare Unisa’s performance with four research intensive traditional universities (UCT, SU, Wits and UP), which have a completely different mandate and mission within the differentiated public university system.

Across these four universities, the proportion of undergraduate enrolments range from 60.1% to 71.3%, and of these between 96.6% and 98.7% are in degree programmes. In terms of postgraduate enrolments, the proportion enrolled in master's and doctoral programmes ranges from 59.9% to 71.8%. These universities also all have medical schools and low staff to student ratios ranging from 13.3 to 25.4, which would be expected for research intensive universities. These universities, which also have some of the highest fees in the country, cater for a different student economic and demographic profile, and have missions which are completely different to those of Unisa.

While Unisa has been improving its research profile over the years, its mandate, however, is to open access to students who otherwise would be denied the opportunity to study at undergraduate level and to be a balanced teaching and research led institution.

As part of the university’s quality enhancement programme, we have seen a trajectory of increasing pass rates and throughput rates over the past few years with dedicated academics ensuring that students are well taught. This is reflected in the latest DHET national cohort report which shows an improvement in the ten-year throughput rate across undergraduate programmes offered though distance mode from 14.8% for the 2005 cohort to 26.7% for the 2010 cohort. While this includes distance education programmes from all universities, the vast majority of these enrolments are at Unisa.

The allegation that Unisa is a degree mill is incorrect, more so when one considers the throughput rates. If it were true, these throughput rates would be much higher. Given the rising spate of illegal "writing mills" soliciting our students, we ensure the implementation of examination proctoring using intelligent invigilation systems and other methods of identifying plagiarism. Proctoring and online invigilation and the verification of the findings is diligently carried out and, where merited, irregularities are escalated to the institutional disciplinary committee.

Against the backdrop of our workloads, and within the definition of our university-type in terms of its mandate within the differentiated South African system, we are satisfied with our research outputs in the context of our undergraduate and postgraduate enrolment proportions, our large student numbers and the high student to staff ratios to which Prof Cloete refers. Realistically, our permanent academics are involved in supervision, teaching and research, and their output rates, as the second highest of the comprehensive universities, should be seen in that light. Moreover, we point out that our colleges are staffed by well qualified and ethical professionals, many of whom hold respectable National Research Foundation (NRF) ratings.

We believe that we should not be talking to our academic peers via the media. We therefore invite Prof Cloete to engage with us on academic matters rather than allowing the agenda to be set by an anonymous letter.

Publish date: 2021/11/09