Policy Advice Report: Advice to the Minister of Education on Aspects of Distance Education Provision in South African Higher Education



Higher education worldwide has been subjected to fundamental changes during the past decade and a half. The advent of the knowledge and information and communication technology revolution has led to the introduction of new technologies, modes of delivery and new teaching methods at higher education institutions across the globe. The use of the Internet and the proliferation of "e-degrees" has increased the array of higher education offerings considerably. Several authors internationally contend that these developments have created a "blurring of traditional face-to-face teaching and distance education in the higher education system". Some writers predict a fundamental change to the higher education landscape in the next two decades. On the one hand these developments signal new opportunities for working students, people living in rural areas, the poor and women to study and to develop skills in the context of rapid globalization. These changes equally threaten to marginalize the very same individuals and communities, as without Internet access they are likely to be marginalized into what is already being termed the "fourth world".



Developments in South African higher education have closely mirrored international trends. In addition to the well-established distance education provision offered by the dedicated distance education institutions, a number of face-to-face institutions have also ventured into distance education in recent years. These developments have certainly increased access to higher education for many people who have previously been denied these opportunities. However, this growth in provision also raises a number of questions around the quality of both programmes and learning resources. Further questions regarding the cost-effectiveness of these programmes, the roles that the dedicated institution (the new University of South Africa) should play vis-à-vis the face-to-face institutions, and the conditions and criteria that should govern the provision of distance education in South Africa also needed to be examined. The Minister of Education therefore requested the CHE to advise the Ministry on these and other matters regarding distance education in South Africa.



The CHE appointed a Task Team of a number of experienced South African and international experts and specialists in the field of distance education to spearhead its investigation. The South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE) and a number of others were commissioned to undertake supportive research. A very thorough process was followed. It included various background papers, stakeholder submissions to the CHE and a set of case study investigations into distance education programmes offered by South African higher education institutions. The CHE investigation also comprised research on international distance education provision in comparable countries, proposals on assuring quality in distance education, proposals on funding distance education and a seminar in Cambridge, England, with a range of international experts on distance education to coincide with a biennial conference on distance education organized by the Commonwealth of Learning and the United Kingdom Open University.



This Policy Advice Report, and an accompanying Research Report that is published separately, shed new light on the current field of distance education in South Africa. The findings include inter alia that distance education forms a very significant proportion of higher education provision; the dedicated institutions are currently the major providers of distance education; the pattern of distance provision is very different from national targets; there is little evidence of any large scale convergence to the middle on the continuum of contact and distance education; within the continuum there is a clear role for the new dedicated distance institution, and that there are some innovative and quality distance programmes to be found at traditional face-to-face institutions. Some of these may be useful models for assisting institutions in rural regions to reach students in remote areas. At the same time, various concerns are raised regarding aspects of distance education provision in South Africa.



Detailed recommendations are made in this Policy Advice Report regarding the funding of distance education, strategies for quality assurance, institutional planning and the development of quality learning resources in order to ensure quality distance programme offerings.



We trust that these recommendations will assist distance education to meet the vision and objectives as set out in the 1997 White Paper: to improve equity and fair access to all who are seeking to improve their potential through higher education; to meet national development needs such as the high skilled employment needs presented by a developing economy within the global context; to contribute to the advancement of all forms of knowledge and scholarship; to address the diverse problems and demands of the local, national, southern African and African contexts, and to uphold rigorous standards of academic quality.



The CHE wishes to thank the following people and institutions for their dedication to and support of the project:



  • Members of the CHE Task Team for their guidance, wisdom and keen involvement and participation in various aspects of the CHE investigation. We are particularly indebted to Dr Gajaraj Dhanarajan (President of the Commonwealth of Learning) who attended a workshop discussion and shared with us his valuable comments and insights.

  • SAIDE for its research, report writing support and management of some aspects of the CHE investigation

  • Various researchers for their production of background papers and undertaking of case studies

  • Prof. Saleem Badat, the CEO of the CHE who supervised the CHE investigation

  • Ms Chantal Dwyer, who served as Project Administrator of the CHE Task Team

  • The staff of higher education institutions and associations for their submissions to the Task Team. Their contributions and cooperation facilitated and enriched the investigation.

  • Ms Nasima Badsha and her staff at the Department of Education for their willingness to provide us with their views and information.

  • The Ford Foundation for providing the bulk of the funding for the CHE investigation

  • The United Kingdom Department for International Development for supporting the seminar in Cambridge, England, and all the international colleagues that participated in the Cambridge conference




On behalf of the CHE



Prof. Stef Coetzee
Chairperson of the CHE Task Team on Distance Education