Founding member: University of South Africa

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The University of South Africa (Unisa) occupies a unique position as a dedicated open distance learning institution. With more than 400,000 students from 130 countries enrolled in formal and non-formal programmes, it is the largest university in Africa. Our roots date back to 1873 making us the oldest university in South Africa (we celebrate our 140th anniversary in 2013). Today, embracing the latest teaching and learning technologies, the university provides open distance learning (ODL) relevant and responsive to the digital age. Major investment in its research capacity has led to significant growth and expansion of the research function at the university. The university also has a vast array of community engagement and outreach projects which make an enormous impact on society.

Unisa quoteMembership of the ACU has been important to Unisa as the ACU represents a prestigious inter-university network. As a founding member, Unisa strongly identifies with the ACU’s mission to contribute to the provision of excellent higher education for the benefit of all people throughout the Commonwealth. It is important for Unisa to subscribe to a multilateral organisation whose goals resonate strongly with our own. Unisa also believes that the ACU has great contextual relevance and a significant reach.  Lastly, we believe that the greatest value of the ACU is as a platform of exchange, collaboration and sharing with other institutions of higher learning.

Unisa has indeed benefited from its membership of the ACU. The following benefits derived are worth noting:

  • ACU membership has provided Unisa with valuable opportunities to collaborate with fellow members in advancing scholarship and academic research. This has served to strengthen the way in which we extend our beneficial capacity and support the community we serve.
  • We have leveraged membership to effect a number of international exchanges, during the course of which we were able to share good practice and conduct benchmarking.
  • Lastly, membership has bolstered Unisa’s efforts to advance the African developmental agenda and raise the profile of ODL and e-Learning.

Globally, higher education institutions are facing major challenges such as the ever-increasing demand for higher education as more students require access for further study. Already millions of students qualified to study at a university are unable to do so, as existing universities do not have the capacity to accommodate them. Distance education is often considered to be the solution: it is cost-effective and can achieve significant economies of scale, as it enables institutions to increase enrolments without overly increasing staff levels and associated physical infrastructure. However, most open distance education institutions have also reached the tipping point where demand outstrips capacity and where the pressure of growth impacts negatively on service delivery to students.

The shift to online teaching and learning platforms has also required significant investments in ICT infrastructure, re-engineering and capacity development and support of staff and students. Most institutions are grappling with these challenges. In a rapidly changing world that is increasingly dominated by technological innovation and ICTs, Unisa is contemplating how it needs to transform in order to take advantage of established and emerging technologies to enhance learning and improve graduateness.

The challenge of providing access to the majority of students previously denied access continues to be a priority for South Africa and Unisa. This will pose related challenges in terms of admission requirements, service delivery, resources and capacity, quality and standards, and throughput, and access to technology and the internet.

Building and improving the university’s research profile is another challenge the university aims to address by increasing its research capacity and outputs. Related to this are the issues of producing more postgraduate students, increasing the number of research publications, and conducting socially relevant, and purposeful  research of desired quality.        

Focusing on students, the challenges Unisa faces are producing graduates and postgraduates whose skills match the needs of the country, especially in the disciplines of science, engineering and technology, preparing our students adequately for the world of work, and improving the success rate of our student cohorts. The students entering the university are anticipated to be increasingly digital natives, so their needs must be catered for.

A significant challenge on the staffing side is the aging profile of academics, as well as the need to transform the gender and racial profile of academia.

In order to address these challenges, Unisa’s Strategic Plan and priority plans in Unisa 2013 – 2015: Towards a High Performance University, informs and guides its strategic and operational plans. In the latter, five focus areas are identified: academic performance; corporate governance and sustainability; service excellence; people centredness, co-operative governance and external stakeholder relations.

Moving forward, Unisa’s emphasis will be on the following:

  • Increasingly leveraging Open Educational Resources (OERs), in which Unisa is a continental leader of international acclaim, to address the challenge of widening access and reducing the cost of higher education. In addition, OERs provide an opportunity for institutions to share knowledge and good practice.
  • Investigating, creating and implementing innovative teaching and learning practices to enhance student success, quality and graduateness.
  • Expanding the use of information technology in delivering graduates who are well prepared for the place of work and responsible citizens equipped to make an impact in their respective communities.  The university’s signature courses (implemented from 2013) are an example of how Unisa tends to achieve this objective.
  • Continuing to strengthen and develop research capacity, and remain committed to conducting research that is relevant to the community. 
  • Continuing to be a transformative, African university that supports continental growth and development.

Future Foward

To find out more about Unisa, please visit their website here.