Proposed higher education amendments could hamper distance study success

Some of the amendments proposed to the Higher Education Act could have the unintended impact of limiting the support of distance education students through partnerships between institutions, which could seriously impact students’ chances of success, an expert says.

Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education, says South Africa has an extensive history of students registering with an institution for supplementary tuition support while they are completing their distance qualifications with a different provider, such as UNISA.

“In many instances, this supplementary support results in measurably improved success rates for the students.  While it has been argued that the main institution should be able to provide all the support a distance student needs, this does not recognise some of the practical constraints faced by both students and higher education institutions.

“And it is not always practical or possible for students to register at a contact institution if they need more support than a distance education provider is able to provide. So until now, these support centres have extended the range of options available to students and have led to improved success rates,” she says.

Coughlan says that the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Distance Education Policy also strongly supports the development of student support centres for distance students, because of the widely acknowledged reality that many students do not complete distance qualifications because of insufficient support.

“The policy goes so far as to indicate that higher education institutions should collaborate in the provision of these services. However the proposed amendments to the Act could in future preclude most of these valuable partnerships.

“Under current legislation, the main institution needs to take overall responsibility for the qualification and everything related to it but can use the services of other institutions to provide additional teaching for example.  Our understanding of the new provisions is that the main institution may now not use these support services, as the institution providing any one of the functions must take responsibility for them all and can only do so for their own qualifications.”

In a recent presentation to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee, Dr Coughlan agreed that several of the Department’s concerns over some recent past and existing collaborations were legitimate, but added that the proposed amendments were not the required remedy.

“It is true that some of these collaborations were, and are, not sufficiently quality assured and may be used to bypass regulation, by one provider simply piggy backing off the qualifications of another or the owner of the qualification avoiding responsibility for the support of its students.

“However, as argued before the same committee in 2010, the effective intervention would be for these relationships to be regulated and by requiring them to comply with quality assurance standards.”

Coughlan says that while some sharing of physical infrastructure could still be possible should the amendments pass into law, true collaboration on matters such as supplementary tuition or assessment will become virtually impossible.

“Where collaboration and partnership enable students to access support for qualifications they could not access otherwise, in a manner that is clearly supplementary and complementary to the services rendered by the institution conferring the qualification, this should be possible within stipulated parameters to protect the students concerned,” she says.

“We therefore repeat our call for a regulatory and quality assurance framework – as suggested by the Distance Education Policy – for partnerships between distance education providers and others that could support the learning of students.

“While we support the Department’s intention not to leave the provision of these services unregulated, there are several other, more effective approaches, than making the offering of these distance learning support services impossible and potentially leading to increased drop-out rates.”

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