The affordable education loan option
Pretoria - Unisa has come up with strategies to counter the challenges faced over the past year and to uphold and maintain the integrity the institution has built over many years.
Problems of leaked and stolen exam papers, student protests, staff unhappiness and the institution’s failure to meet student funding obligations have hit the university hard. They have spread from region to region and threatened to tarnish Unisa’s good name.
But Unisa principal and vice-chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya said the problems did not affect the performance of the open-distance academic institution.
“The university is doing very well, in the broader scope of things; our performance remains on par with expectations within the higher education environment,” he said.
Makhanya told the Pretoria News outputs were on an upward trend, research was at a high level and student success continued to impress.
He admitted, though, that Unisa’s reputation had taken a knock as a result of major issues seemingly getting out of hand.
The theft of exam papers had, for instance, caught the university’s principals by surprise.
“This was because we have such high security measures, but we realised and quickly accepted that we had become targets of crime and decided to act quickly,” he said.
And so the vice-chancellor called on all resources to tackle the problem and, after gaps were identified, a sophisticated plan to protect the exam papers distributed worldwide was put in place.
Measures to limit access, from printing to distribution, were instituted and the preparation of the exam papers was the first process to be scrutinised.
Hi-tech cameras were installed from the point of translation, checking, re-checking and printing.
“This process is very complex because of quality assurance purposes and it also involves external examiners, so access had to be tightened,” Makhanya explained.
He said the wake-up call came when members of a crime syndicate were caught with original papers from Unisa, showing the fraud ran deep.
“We looked but could not identify the weak links, but the need to protect our integrity and reputation meant blocking all gaps.”
Authorities then looked at creating a high-security environment and called in experts.
In the new system documents are recorded and authenticated at each point of receipt and when they change hands.
Printing is done outside the institution and sophisticated equipment sorts papers and packages them in clearly marked batches.
“The packages are sealed with a badge that indicates when and where they were closed and then distributed.”
Makhanya said that with the new security system they could track the movement of all exam papers even beyond Africa.
If even one batch is opened a notification gets delivered directly to him, informing him of who has opened the package, where, and the exact time it was opened.
“We have assured our staff that this is not to say we suspect them of anything, but it is to protect the integrity of the institution.”
He said they were painfully aware of opportunistic drug lords who could try to hijack the transfer of papers into other countries and cause hiccups to the smooth operation.
“Migration authorities might want to check the packages as they pass through, to make sure they do not have carefully concealed and undetectable drugs hidden in the pages,” he said.
The vice-chancellor said those were dynamics they were well aware of and affected by.
“We just need to get to the end of the exam process, and if no incidents are reported by then we will be happy.”
Makhanya also spoke about the unhappiness of staff, some of whom had gone public with their issues.
The marking process had become public and clear signs of failure to verify marks by professors had been identified.
Makhanya said that pointed to weaknesses in the quality assurance process, where those tasked with checking the papers did not do a proper job.
“We conducted an investigation to see where there had been a dereliction of duty and disciplinary processes are under way.”
Some issues causing the happiness of staff were raised at a recent assembly called by Makhanya, which included members of the academic staff, management, support staff, unions and students.
He said the assembly had been “hot” and people had spoken frankly of their concerns. From there, a working group was formed, and it will meet regularly to iron out issues, find solutions and report back to the vice-chancellor.
“We need to accept responsibility as management and I am vicariously involved in ensuring that this happens.”
Makhanya also spoke of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme running dry at the beginning of the semester, forcing the institution to send home some students and advise them to seek alternative funding.
“It is reality that some students who do not qualify apply and therefore take away the chance from deserving students,” he said.
Some students reportedly submitted false documentation to receive funding.
Makhanya said when the numbers of applicants spiked at the beginning of the second semester the university council provided additional funding, but even that fell short. “The numbers will only increase, so we have to look beyond to see what activities we can engage in to raise funds.”
Over the past decade, Makhanya said, Unisa had proved itself to be accessible financially, and that needed to be maintained. “In this environment of shrinking job opportunities we need to make the most of the space of creating people better qualified to employ themselves.”
He said Unisa trained thinkers, and strove to increase the numbers of graduates who wanted to be self-sustaining.
The institution had established mobile libraries in regions including the Midlands to enable students to access literature.