Why universities must balance business with scholarship

In recent times we’ve experienced increasingly vigorous debates both in South Africa and the rest of the world on the transformation of our universities.

These debates have mostly been focused on the lack of diversity in staff, the relevance of content and the implications of these for the implementation of the curriculum. As a result of these debates, we are more aware of the challenges many students, from across different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, face each day while pursuing their academic studies at institutions globally.

This debate is not new, however, and forms part of a bigger conversation about the role of academia in society and its potential to deliver a future we all want.

Parallel to these debates, we have seen a proliferation of articles and reports about a revolution in higher education, brought about by advances in technology.

The main thesis of those who have been leading this debate has been that technology is the panacea for all problems in higher education, from access to affordability. The drivers of this revolution come mainly from the business sector and, as such, profit and profit-making ventures are punted as positive outcomes of this technological revolution.

Proponents of the “technology is best” thesis emphasise the role of technology in rendering the physical university structure obsolete. Surprisingly, practitioners of education – that is, academics and university administrators – have not been part of this debate, yet the drivers of “technology is best” propagate this thesis in universities where the climate has increasingly become profit-driven, concerned with delivering on the “brand promise” (read “recognised degree from a recognised institution”) to their “customers” (read “students”).

This profit-driven agenda has been at the cost of scholarship and student needs, and is the reason I am advocating we, as academics, go back to basics.

Academics need to take part in debates about the role of academia in society before we are written out of the history books. We recognise the contribution technology can make in supporting scholarship, but we need to restore the balance.

Technology cannot be the panacea for all. We, as academics, need to reassert our identity and our calling as educators. No country, much less a developing nation such as South Africa and a developing continent such as Africa, can afford to remove scholarship from the equation. Profits and technology cannot be at the centre of academia: scholarship has to lead and inform all decisions that we make.

Proponents of the “technology as the panacea of all problems” argument point to the global decline in enrolments in distance education as substantiation that their assertions are correct. Yes, there has been a decline in numbers but I believe this is more a symptom of failed expectations on the part of the student and the provider. The provision of contextually relevant, quality education delivered by staff with the capacity to react and adapt to changes quickly needs to be nurtured.

Given the aforementioned debate and context, is it then possible to deliver online, open and flexible education for the future we want? The answer is yes, but only if we academics commit to going back to basic principles – and focus on delivering quality education that is contextually relevant to students.

I believe that if the future we want is about delivering quality, equitable and accessible higher education, then we need to change the fundamental principles underlying the way we function. We must shift from narrowly focusing on business principles and practices that aim to achieve maximum institutional efficiency and productivity. We have to place more value on outputs such as graduates, graduate-ness, research, new knowledge and community engagement that positively effect the growth and development of society.

I am not suggesting that business principles are not important but rather that they need to be balanced with scholarship. The successful integration of the two requires efficient and effective leadership and management to engender an academic climate and culture conducive to enhancing scholarship.

The integration of the two has to happen urgently because the lack of balance currently evidenced will be to the detriment of higher education. Profit-making strategies have taken our eyes off the proverbial ball while scholarship, knowledge production and community engagement in their purest and most productive forms have become subsumed in a tidal wave of technospeak in the quest to be seen to be delivering the latest technology.

At Unisa, we pride ourselves on delivering successful distance education even though we certainly cannot be categorised comfortably in any of the prevailing Western models of distance education. We have managed to do this by constantly ensuring that three key considerations underpin our quest to deliver online, open and flexible higher education for the future we want. We focus on delivering education that is contextually relevant and of high quality, using the capacity provided by our dedicated staff members and guided by and for the quest for scholarship.

Most of our students choose distance education from a position of disadvantage: from students who would have wanted to be in contact universities but could not afford it or were academically excluded to students who are in full-time employment and cannot study on a full-time basis.

Our student body is vastly different to the composition of students at other distance education institutions in other contexts – noticeably in the developed world. Unisa’s open distance learning is also fully subsidised and quality assured – another unique factor in distance learning.

As a result, although a third stream of income is a consideration, profit is not our raison d’être. Unisa is in the relatively rare position, continentally and globally, of being an integral part of South Africa’s higher education system – funded, quality assured and accredited in the same way that residential institutions are, unlike most other distance education providers globally who have more need to focus on profit-making ventures than we do.

The context of Unisa in South Africa and on the African continent has affected and must continue to affect our content delivery methods, course development, timing of delivery, assessment and many other critical aspects including the leadership and management style of the university. Understanding the effect of different contexts on the university’s delivery and operations management means we are aware of the model of content delivery used, for example, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open Courseware, but we recognise that this is not fully possible in our context.

Moreover, our internet speeds and ability to access the internet across the length and breadth of the country and continent and the culture of online usage have a significant impact on student uptake of technology.

We are ever cognisant that we have a role in enabling access and enhancing student uptake. And so, while we do deliver online distance education as part of our blended model, we are always guided by our context and by the recognition that we must ensure that we remain the most feasible and affordable means of higher education for the many in South Africa and on the rest of the continent who require access.

We recognise also, that we need to offer higher education firmly grounded in scholarship rather than being guided by a profit motive.

Quality is also contextual and this is critical in distance education. We speak of badges, credits, certificates, joint degrees, sharing courseware, institutional capacities and many other possibilities but we are aware that the students who enter an institution of learning such as Unisa all seek one thing: they want a formally recognised qualification that will give them access to gainful employment, which will open pathways to further learning.

Our students, without exception, require education that will open the door to improved socioeconomic circumstances, or will equip them with the entrepreneurial skills needed to grow businesses and become employers themselves. These are some of the many needs that we as an institution need to service.

We have to devise creative and innovative quality models that will serve this need. Our vision for graduate-ness is critical. Substandard graduates will end up as liabilities, not assets, to our society.

Contrary to popular opinion, quality online distance learning is not cheap. Course design and development for quality online education is a specialised field requiring trained researchers and developers, and getting the associated support systems in place is an extremely costly exercise. To do this, we recognise that we continually need to build and develop the capacity of all our personnel, both the administrators and the academics.

We need to ensure that we are able to implement the appropriate technologies, to employ appropriately qualified and experienced staff.

This will enable us to mine and analyse the data to better understand who we are serving, to what end, and whether there is a match between the outcomes of the qualifications and the expected outcomes of students and employers.

This is our current area of focus. We believe that technology should be an instrument for achieving excellence in scholarship, student support, institutional efficiency and service delivery, but that it should not dictate a business model based on potential, possibility and profit to the university.  Not recognising this will be a recipe for failure – certainly not the way to define tomorrow.

This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Professor Mandla Makhanya is the principal and vice-chancellor of Unisa

Image: Second-year civil engineering student and first-time voter Nkululeko Simelane poses for a picture at Wits University in Johannesburg. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Leave a Reply