Should Unisa be for full-time or part-time students?

Unisa Student

For many decades Unisa was a home to students studying their degrees and diplomas part-time while they worked during the day. They received their study material by post and sent their assignments back the same way. Things have changed and among the 407 000 students at the university now there is a growing group of younger matriculants who couldn't access a full-time university so are studying full-time at Unisa instead. But what are the implications of this for the future of the world's oldest distance education university?

For many decades Unisa was used by older students as a part-time university which allowed them to study while working, or finish off a few credits they needed to complete a degree. But in the last few years things have changed a lot.

Unisa is the largest correspondence university in the world and now has more than 400 000 students registered for their short courses and degree courses.

For many decades it was a home to those who wanted to study part-time while working, allowing them to do their readings and essays in the evening when they got home from work.

For others who hadn't finished their degree and needed to complete a few courses to qualify for their full degree, Unisa provided the option to complete those courses part-time.

All that changed over the last few years and the NSFAS bursaries expanded greatly and many more matriculants left school with a bachelors pass, funding from NSFAS, but no place at a full-time university.  The preferred option that remained for them was to register at Unisa.

This led to a big increase in the number of young, full-time students studying degrees at Unisa. It could be a solution to the problem of shortage at full-time universities but it was never planned and systems were not put in place to support this new profile of student.

There are now 407 759 students registered at Unisa and Minister Blade Nzimande refers to it as, "Too big to fail!"

This change in the profile of students and the way they are studying which happened organically without a plan has been referred to as 'mission drift'.

Now the Minister has announced that he has set up a Ministerial Task Team to research the current situation at the university and draw up a plan for the future.

“The issue of ‘mission drift’ – has massive implications for the financial sustainability and future of UNISA. It also has materially-significant implications for Government for both subsidy and student financial aid support – as we have seen at the start of the 2020 academic year when segments of the student community made demands for near full-time equivalent NSFAS support from Government. Similarly, mission drift will impose major pressures on infrastructure, teaching staff and a host of other concerns,” said Minister Nzimande.

When allowances were announced by NSFAS this year it was expected by the funding body that Unisa students would not get the same amount as 'full-time' students at traditional universities. This became a point of protest from the increasing number of full-time students at Unisa on NSFAS funding who consider themselves to be full-time students.

Nzimande has highlighted the potential financial impact that this shift will have on government finances.  There is an increased need for allowances for these full-time students - and if the throughput of this new breed of student is not efficient it could lead to significant additional expenditure.

Specific areas of concern raised by Minister Nzimande for the task team to focus on are:

  • There has been no comprehensive reflection on implications of new technologies on the operations of the university;
  • There has been concerns raised regarding the quality of offerings/programmes;
  • The persistent problem of UNISA's unacceptably high student failure rates, as well as de-accreditation of some of its academic programmes; and the
  • The instability in the senior Management is also a matter of great concern.

The members of the Ministerial Task Team are Dr Vincent Maphai (Chairperson), Professor John Volmink, Professor Louis Molamu, Ms Nonkululeko Gobodo and Professor Brenda Gourley. The task team will begin their work immediately.

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