Key policy provisions that flow from the discussion of the issues affecting distance higher education are highlighted in each section and are collated in a Summary Draft Policy Framework which is found
in an accompanying document.
This is the Ministry of Higher Education and Training’s (MHET) first policy document devoted entirely to the use of distance education in higher education programmes. Until now, distance education has featured in general higher education policies, plans, legislation, and executive decisions, but its
importance and complexity warrants an additional separate policy statement.
The MHET sees distance provisioning as an integral part of the post-school system in general, and more specifically in higher education, therefore this policy should be read in conjunction with other policy documents affecting higher education generally. This policy statement is part of a broader focus on building the capacity of the education system but focuses primarily on higher education
because of its unique features.
Through this policy framework, the MHET seeks to resolve many areas of uncertainty and provide strong support for the progressive development of South African distance higher education as an indispensable and integral component of our national higher education system.
From 1994, the former combined Ministry of Education encouraged the development of distance education and related approaches to teaching and learning at all levels, envisaging the role it could play at the heart of the transformation process. For decades, the provision of distance higher education programmes has afforded access to education to students in South Africa and the wider African region for whom full-time contact education has been either inappropriate, unaffordable, or inaccessible. It has therefore served the invaluable role of bringing higher education within the reach of students who would not otherwise have been able to study at this level. In the past, it has typically done so at a significantly reduced cost both to the state and to the student. In addition, niche programmes that serve a defined national need but have limited local appeal for contact students at any one institution have been offered effectively as distance programmes.
Distance education globally has also been an arena of innovation in higher education, an incubator for conceptual and technological advances that have been capable of strengthening teaching and learning in South African higher education across the board. For at least a decade, South African distance education practitioners have joined their international colleagues in pioneering education technologies for higher education as for other spheres of education and training. They are providing leadership in the research and development, design, and advocacy of curricula and materials that are especially tailored to the needs of independent students and sensitive to South African students’ circumstances.
Although our country is an acknowledged pioneer in its initial deployment of correspondence education, much improvement is needed to ensure that all of our distance higher education programmes fully exploit the advantages of the mode and deliver learning opportunities with the required rigour, coherence, and effective student support. Moreover, considerable improvement is required in success and throughput rates in distance programmes if the potential cost-benefits of distance education are to be realized. In common with higher education generally, distance higher education programmes also need to ensure that they equip students with the kinds of graduate competences needed for success after graduation. This requires attention to and investment in the quality of appropriate inputs and processes but also ongoing monitoring of outputs and impact. Distance education provision thus needs to rise to the double of challenge of providing greater access but doing so in ways that offer a reasonable expectation of turning access into success.
From 2004, a new University of South Africa became the sole dedicated distance higher education institution in democratic South Africa, combining the programmes, staff, and facilities of the former University of South Africa and Technikon Southern Africa and incorporating the Vista University Distance Education Campus in a single, merged, comprehensive open and distance learning university. With an audited active enrolment of just under 300,000 in 2010 and a new mission and vision that reflect its national and continental role, Unisa is recognised as one of the world’s most important mega-universities. However, Unisa is not the sole public provider of distance higher education. In recent years many predominantly contact institutions have developed and launched distance education programmes, often in niche areas aimed at specific clienteles both locally and in the SADC region or beyond. This is another reason for making a policy statement at this time. There is need to ensure that growth in the system based on public funding is targeted towards the national good and aligned with the Medium Term Expenditure Framework.
The MHET acknowledges the Council on Higher Education (CHE)’s excellent research reports and policy advice on distance higher education which have strongly influenced this policy. Both Higher Education South Africa (HESA) and individual HEIs have made insightful statements on the subject, while the former South African University Vice Chancellors’ Association (SAUVCA)’s earlier investigation of distance higher education sharpened focus on many of the important issues. As always, the MHET has tried to maximise the common ground between its own position and the advice it has received from the higher education sector, while forming its own judgement in the light of its own and the government’s broader policy perspectives and resources.