Has UNISA Got Too Big for Its Boots?

By Glenn Ashton · 15 May 2012

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UNISA, the University of South Africa, has established an excellent reputation over its 138-year history. Even during apartheid it served everyone in the country through its open distance education model. Many past and present leaders earned their degrees whilst incarcerated for anti-apartheid activities, this fact recently receiving praise from President Zuma. There are still prisoners within the corrections system receiving UNISA tuition. UNISA extends the possibility to realise our individual potential.

UNISA has not only a national, but a global reach with students on every continent. However around 95% of its students are from within South Africa. It is presently ranked as the 7th best University in Africa. This proud record is a challenge to live up to, especially in a shrinking, increasingly connected world.

The Internet is a tool, which is of obvious benefit to UNISA’s model of education, yet this is a transition filled with pitfalls. It appears that the university administration has failed to fully capitalise on the opportunities and possibilities of enhancing their service through electronic communications.

As South Africa’s biggest university, UNISA accounts for more than a third of all university students in the country. It ranks amongst the world’s 20 mega-universities by numbers of enrolled students. The institution has expanded significantly since its 2004 amalgamation with Vista University and Technikon Southern Africa, increasing enrolment figures from around 250 000 to over 400 000 students in 2011.

Questions are being asked, mainly from within the student body, as to whether this expansion has come at the cost of good governance, efficient administration and consistent standards. Despite maintaining its good reputation, problems have begun to appear in how the institution relates and responds to the student body.

Many graduates speak glowingly of the institution. UNISA has certainly been essential in enabling a broad swathe of society to access opportunities to participate in otherwise inaccessible higher educational possibilities. The reasonable price structures means the average cost is around a third of regular university tuition. Subsidies are also available through the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

During Thabo Mbeki’s term of office the university was ideologically linked to the concept of the African Renaissance. This endures institutionally through UNISA’s Institute for African Renaissance Studies.

UNISA has also expanded by building relationships within the African Union (AU). In 2007 the university opened its first major extra-national node in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Additional expansion has been constrained by limited available resources. However national nodes within South Africa have been upgraded. Internet access has been enhanced in the seven national hubs in the major cities, as well as within its 28 learning centres where counselling, learning space and other facilities are offered.

Despite these positive developments there appear to be fundamental concerns with university administration. An increasing sense of frustration seems to have emerged amongst students through an apparent failure to resolve administrative issues at several levels. 

Many students enrolled at UNISA, some already qualified at other tertiary institutions, have expressed disquiet around an unresponsive administration. Because UNISA is a distance learning institution these difficulties are harder to resolve than would otherwise be the case. And while these problems are certainly not universal, they appear to be sufficiently widespread to be of concern.

In mid 2011 the university unilaterally stopped its call centre operation, supposedly to improve communications - and presumably to reduce costs as well. While imperfect, many considered the system to be central to the ease of dealing with the university. Voice contact provided a human dimension to distance education as well. The call centre was replaced by an expanded and updated SMS and email communication system, as well as an electronic assignment submission system.

The problem, inherent to the very nature of electronic communications, is that many enquiries are either unanswered for unacceptably long periods, or are never properly resolved at all. Submitted documents get lost or are forwarded to the incorrect departments. The result is that they must be re-sent, sometimes repeatedly. It is also alleged that queries to tutors or lecturers are not responded to.

These obstacles and hardships undermine the primary objective of the university - to provide a readily accessible means of education to people unable to participate in conventional tertiary education. Many UNISA students are isolated and ill resourced.

The frustrations experienced by bureaucratically experienced post-graduate students must be far more dismaying for inexperienced rural freshmen. This is magnified by the harsh reality of travelling long distances to communication nodes to pay a premium to access email or fax facilities, or to be repeatedly impeded by administrative blunders.

The degree of the problem is evident when browsing some of the whinge-websites like HelloPeter.com. UNISA receives disproportionate numbers of complaints, most of which remain unresolved. Those receiving responses generally get a stock reply. Over the past 12 months UNISA received 2130 complaints and responded to only 177 of these. No other educational institution has a complaint rate approaching this.

These complaints probably represent the tip of the iceberg. A minority have even heard of HelloPeter.com; fewer still have the means to access it. Worse yet, all of these complaints emanate from within South Africa – how many of the thousands of external students have no available channel to voice their concerns? Research has found unhappiness with UNISA both in neighbouring countries as well as further afield.

UNISA’s stock responses to a tiny proportion of complaints through public complaint websites are certainly not the correct manner to deal with administration problems or student dissatisfaction. Students urgently require far more transparent and accessible internal means of resolving these issues.

At the very least, the university should establish a clearinghouse, where complaints are logged and remain in the system until they can be shown to have been satisfactorily resolved. It may also be useful to create an institution like a university ombudsman to solve more serious or intractable concerns. The university claims to be dealing with these concerns but this will almost certainly be too late for some.

If these very real administrative issues are not dealt with UNISA stands to suffer serious reputational damage. In these interconnected times it is as easy to utilise the Internet as a tool to deal with these issues as it is for dissatisfaction to spread virally across the web. It is important for the University leadership to remember that it is far easier to damage a reputation than it is to regain trust, which has been established over many decades.

In order to fulfil its mandates UNISA needs to tap into an increasingly interconnected world to facilitate its outreach and distance learning. This is an institution whose success hinges upon efficiently administering its far-flung student body in properly structured and managed ways. UNISA has a profound responsibility to manage its expansion and help wake the sleeping African giant. As an abiding institution, a well-run UNISA can provide an excellent showcase for South African education across the continent and the world.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Rory Short
18 May

Historical UNISA

I did a Diploma in Datametrics with Unisa at the end of the 70's. I am someone who did an engineering degree and within two years of graduating moved into computers in 1963. I had basically zero academic training in computers so when Unisa launched the diploma in Datametrics I had a look at the contents and it was just what I felt I needed as someone already working in the computer industry. My studies although demanding timewise were most enjoyable and there were never any bureaucratic snarl ups even though I was working overseas for part of the time. It is sad indeed to read that Unisa's previously flawless bureaucracy is losing some of its gloss.

Respond to this comment

19 May

About Unisa

Everything said in the above article is so true. I thought that I was one of a very few who where experiencing problems communicating with Unisa. Closing the call centre was the worst thing they could do to us. I have smsed queries to them and guess the reply? Your msg could not be decoded! LoL!

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19 May

UNISA's Problems Run Way Deeper than an Arrogant Administration

The most serious problem with UNISA is that it, much like the SABC, has become a political instrument of an increasingly reactionary and authoritarian ruling elite. There is very little independent critical academic work happening there.

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29 Jul

Unisa Admin Is the Pits!

I've been studying through UNISA for 3 years now, and in that time the level of staff and admin incompetence I have had to deal with makes me sick. In my first year I used to rage and cry and get really worked up... Now I just suck it up, but I wish I had the means to sue the #$% out of them. My most recent frustration was that I submitted an assignment, got zero% and when I phoned to ask them what the hell was going on, I was informed that it was too much trouble to resolve, and if I did well enough in my other assignments I would still be able to pass the module... remind me what I'm paying for again? That is only one of the many, many things I have dealt with...
There is no way I'm doing my postgrad through them, I'll get my undergrad in spite of them and get the hell out...

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James M. Anderson
6 May

UNISA Is The Pits

I agree with you my friend!

27 Dec

Good Service

I would like to comment on the service I have recieved over the past seven years. I have experienced only two small problems over the seven years, which they sorted out rather quickly. I feel that there may be a communication problem when reading the guideline booklets. Maybe these books should be printed in all languages, (suggestion). As a general comment, I would like to see UNISA issue computers, (laptops) as part of the course fees with added air-time. UNISA could possibly buy into a cell phone company to get better than average rates. Thanks for listening.

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13 Feb


I have to disagree. From day one I've been doing everything online, which means there will be less issues. Yes, I also had one or 2 issues and I phoned one of the UNISA offices a couple of times and they assisted me every single time. Just phone another office if you don't get hold of the first one. If it wasn't for UNISA's fair prices I would never had the opportunity to even study at all. Scary how lecture fees at business schools cost double or more then the registration fees. UNISA is really cheap, so expect what you pay for. They can always raise prices to employ more admin personnel. But I won't like that at all.

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15 May


Employing more people...!!!! Maybe they should employ the the right people. I am so tired of struggling with the incompetent idiots they currently employ. UNISA is just a reflection of the sad reality of South Africa, like Telkom, Eskom, SABC etc.

25 Feb

Unisa Frustrations

I called Unisa OVER 100 times from December up to January with just 2 or 3 pickups of which they past the buck somewhere else. I then wrote to every mail address possible to get a response but never did. I then went to the offices in Pretoria to try and resolve my registration issue and after 4 hours in the line,my issue was still not resolved, I then had to go to the Florida campus and stood in line for a further 2 hours. None of the Unisa staff wanted to help at all. Only when I threatened to get the deans details and only email him, did I get some form of help. So I donit think Iris that you have experienced what many students have yet but your time will come at Unisa. It is just a matter of time, however, I do not wish that upon you.