Unisa Faces Challenges Due to Personality Conflicts

Unisa is a public institution. There is a huge role it must play in closing the deep shortfall of the government’s national imperative to provide sufficient access to higher education.


The progress made by the government is well known, but the shortfall is still too deep. Unisa does not belong to the government (minister); it does not belong to itself (council or management) – it belongs to the people of South Africa.


Instead of administration, may the minister, council or the chancellor, whoever is best suited, convene a forum whose primary focus will be to give rise to justice for Unisa.


The government must do justice to Unisa by allowing its mission to be redefined freely in the context of the perennial problems faced by South Africa in 2023. Other institutions have been allowed the space. Even new entrants in higher education have been allowed the space. Why is Unisa isolated? To me, Unisa is like a child who is ready to be born but constrained in the womb. What will happen to that child?

Unisa must do justice to itself and others in confronting what it has done right, what it has done wrong, whom it has done right by, whom it has wronged. With regard to personalities – who must go, who must stay, who must be brought in and who is gone that must return or, at the very least, must be acknowledged from where they are? The clash of personalities deserves attention, too. It is my firm belief that Unisa suffers because of a clash of personalities, i.e. the external vs the internal and the old vs the new.


Above all, Unisa must do justice to the people of South Africa based on a new agreement on what its role should become moving forward. The forum must be open to all people of South Africa and the continent who have a justifiable interest in the future of a Unisa magnified in favour of the new wishes of its people and the continent.


In essence, the decision about Unisa’s mission was taken in 1946. A move that heralded the beginning of the University as it is known today.


Who took the decision about Unisa in 1946? What was the context in which the decision was taken in 1946? Should we not question whether successive policy decisions and stances about Unisa’s character in the present day were inspired by the same 1946 decision, ultimately? Is it not time that we allow nature to take its course in the sense of two contradictions (opposites) giving rise to a new condition?

This opinion piece seeks to wither away what is arguably a dark cloud imposed upon Unisa in recent times, the fons et origo being “the mission drift”.

I found two definitions of the word “drift” which I list for ease of context:


1. To move slowly, especially pushed by currents of water, air, etc.


2. To deviate gently from the intended direction of travel.


What is wrong with drifting? Unisa has, correctly so, become increasingly accommodating to young prospective students who would have otherwise become classified “out of school youth”.


Again, it is in light of the country’s incapacity to absorb students who qualify for enrolment in universities. Yes, TVET Colleges are very important in a developmental state. We must acknowledge, however, that most young people don’t want TVET colleges, they want universities.

Children are brought up being repeatedly told about “going to university one day”.


Unfortunately, since 1994, the university has not been freed from its constriction, instead it has increasingly been cornered to make it “repent” from its good deeds towards the vulnerable and marginalised majority.


The recent problems of Unisa arise from a time when it was expected to demonstrate the extent to which it has resisted its evolution – negating the reality that evolution is inevitable and inherent in the nature of the living.


I deliberately avoid elaborating on the current model of existence as it is well known by now. The point is: distance in its dogmatic form and its unfortunate limitations must not be retained for the sake of its own glory. It is my argument that distance can be modelled in such a way that it is reasonably responsive to national reality and national development imperatives. The university must take a great leap forward:


l The creation of Unisa District Colleges or District Schools of Colleges – a derivative of the current colleges which are most appropriate to cascade, i.e. College of Education, College of Law, College of Agriculture and Environmental Studies, College of Science and Technology.


l The creation of a virtual campus. Modelling a student experience for the virtually present student and the physically present student respectively – boldly acknowledging that Unisa has a dual student constituency i.e. what I call the campus-dependent vs campus-independent student.


l Revising the university’s operational and funding model in such an innovative way that enrolments can be increased substantially, fees be lowered, yet surplus revenue still be achieved despite the maximum subsidy that the Department of Higher Education and Training can afford, e.g. when Unisa has capacity to service 800 000 students based on the revised model, but the department can only afford to subsidise 400 000, the model should allow Unisa to service all 800 000 students and still be financially sustainable.


l Proliferation of Unisa affiliate colleges and community education centres in towns, rural and semi-rural areas through investing in partnerships, has Unisa turned 150 years this year.

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