Unisa stands proud at 140 years

Lucille Davie

unisa1Unisa has a proud list of illustrious alumni.

(Image: Unisa)

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• Nancy-Anne Anderson
Managing Editor, department of corporate communication and marketing, Unisa
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Unisa – the University of South Africa – has seven graduates in the Constitutional Court, six current and former presidents of the High Courts and heads of special courts, and a significant number on the boards of JSE listed companies.

The university celebrates its 140th birthday this year, and can proudly notch up an illustrious list of alumni – with Nobel Peace Prize laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu leading them, as well as Judge Dikgang Moseneke, deputy chief judge of the Constitutional Court; the late Professor Kader Asmal, one of the country’s most respected cabinet ministers; Ahmed Kathrada, former Robben Island prisoner and human rights activist; singer and humanitarian Yvonne Chaka Chaka; and Transnet chief executive Brian Molefe, among others.

The theme for the anniversary is “140 years of shaping futures to highlight how the university has helped ordinary South Africans achieve their dreams of obtaining quality education”.

Its alumni work around the world, and since 1951 it has conferred over 400 000 degrees and diplomas. Today, it has 400 000 students from 130 countries and accounts for 12,8% of all degrees conferred in South Africa. Its black African student numbers are close to 70%. Its enrolment comprises 91,3% South Africans, 8,2% other Africans, and 0,5% from the rest of the world. It has close to 60% black African staff, 55% of whom are women.

Significantly, it has always been a non-racial institution, providing a means of study for thousands of South Africans who would have struggled otherwise to get tertiary education.

“Unisa students are typically people who in their studies have succeeded against many odds, improved their place in society, enhanced their chances of success in securing employment if they were not already holding down jobs, continued their career development if they were already employed, and pursued a process of lifelong learning,” says Nancy-Anne Anderson, the managing editor in the department of corporate communication and marketing at Unisa, which is based in Tshwane, South Africa’s executive capital city.

Vice-chancellor Mandla Makhanya believes Unisa sets itself apart. “In a country of opposites, disparity and diversity, Unisa has perhaps been the single constant. Unisa and those who have worked for her have served South Africa and its people as well as our continent, irrespective of their circumstance, faithfully for 140 years. I can think of no other institution that can make that claim.”

Of his studies at Unisa, Moseneke says: “Two numbers [his Robben Island prison number and Unisa student number] were vital for my continued survival and yet they served divergent and often paradoxical ends. The one was the ultimate symbol of deprivation of liberty, repression and human futility. In sharp contrast, the student number served as an icon of goodness. It represented a fountain of knowledge that was life-giving and liberating.” He spent 10 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner of the apartheid government.

His feelings are echoed by Kathrada: “Unisa and I both have a strong belief in opening doors, especially to people who have been disadvantaged in the past. Other universities have had a limited access in terms of what they can offer. Unisa has made a big difference in this in that it appeals to students not only of South Africa, but also to those outside the country.”

History

Unisa was founded in 1873 in Cape Town as the University of Good Hope, and operated as an examining body for the Oxford and Cambridge universities, receiving its Royal Charter in 1877. In 1916, it changed its name to the University of South Africa, and in 1946 it became the first public university in the world to teach exclusively through distance education, using study guides, cassette tapes and limited face-to-face tuition. In 1918, it moved to Pretoria, and in 1972 it moved to its present campus on Muckleneuk ridge.

Ten years into democracy, in 2004, it merged with another distance learning institution, Technikon Southern Africa, and also incorporated the former Vista University’s Distance Education Campus to become the largest university in South Africa and Africa, making it one of the world’s mega universities. It has seven regional offices, including one in Ethiopia, and 28 learning centres countrywide.

It offers a range of study choices, from short courses and certificate programmes to three- and four-year degrees and diplomas, and doctorates, in the humanities, business and management, law and criminal justice, agriculture and environmental sciences, and science, engineering and technology.

Unisa’s mission is to be a “comprehensive, open distance learning institution that produces excellent scholarship and research, provides quality tuition and fosters active community engagement”. It is guided by the principles of “life-long learning, student centeredness, innovation and creativity”, and hopes to “contribute to the knowledge and information society, advance development, nurture a critical citizenry and ensure global sustainability”.

Various initiatives

In 2005, Unisa launched an integrated learning management platform called My Unisa, an open distance learning initiative. It introduced its first signature courses, fully online modules to ease learning, in 2013. Other initiatives include the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute, which is dedicated to investing in new thought leaders for Africa’s renewal. It is supported by the Brigalia Bam/Wiphold Chair in Electoral Democracy in Africa, which facilitates the training of electoral officers and commissioners from selected countries in Africa in democratic election procedures.

In addition, in 2013 the Thabo Mbeki Foundation at the university hosted some of Africa’s intellectuals at the Thabo Mbeki@70 Colloquium, which discussed 50 years of the Organisation of African Unity, and key concepts for Africa’s future. “Unisa is an African university and its identity informs its core business areas of teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement. For example, in its curriculum policy, Unisa undertakes ‘to promote African thought, philosophies, interests and epistemologies through inquiry, scholarship and partnership,’” explains Anderson.

Regarding community engagement, it has 157 projects that are “aligned with the socio-economic imperatives of the country and continent”. One such initiative is the Bright Site Project, set up in 2009 by the department of social work. A project of “mutual service” in the Pretoria suburb of Sunnyside, here students are encouraged to serve the community. Other departments are also involved in the project, through community-based research and applied research responses.

As part of its 140th celebration, in July this year Unisa hosted the world premiere of Credo: a Musical Testament to the Freedom Charter, a multimedia oratorio to honour Mandela and other struggle veterans.

In August, Dr Mo Ibrahim, the mobile communications entrepreneur and billionaire, and founder of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, delivered the 11th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Unisa. Other lectures to be given as part of the celebrations include African Intellectuals and Knowledge Systems, Africa Day Lecture, Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture, Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, Es’kia Mphahlele Memorial Lecture, and Founders Lecture.

Also this year, in July, Unisa launched its Science Campus in Johannesburg. A green campus, it is built on energy-efficient design principles with a focus on sustainability. “It is an environment that meets the educational and training needs of its distance learning science students, something not usually associated with open distance and elearning institutions,” says Anderson.

High-end equipment and facilities give researchers and students in molecular biology, engineering, physics and chemistry the chance to match theory and practice. And the Horticulture Centre, which was opened recently, gives students the opportunity to undertake a range of programmes including agriculture, ornamental horticulture and nature conservation.

Chairs and institutes

There are several:

•    The Archie Mafeje Research Institute aims to promote indigenous and pan-African research in resolving Africa’s social challenges.
•    The South African Research Chairs Initiative Research Chair in Development Education seeks to bring indigenous knowledge systems into university curricula.
•    The Unesco-Unisa Africa Chair in Nanosciences and Nanotechnology operates within the framework of the Nano-Sciences African Network and endeavours to harness these key multidisciplinary driving forces in the interests of developing emerging economies. In December 2012, Unisa filed its first patent, involving a novel method for the use of magnetic nanoparticles to remove contaminants from water.
•    Unisa also funds research chairs in the key areas of high-performance scientific computing, ecotoxicology, macroeconomic policy analysis, superconductivity energy technology and topology.

Unisa has a healthy and growing community of researchers comprising more than 10 000 master’s and doctoral students, and 1 850 academic staff, which includes close on 130 researchers with National Research Foundation ratings, including a significant number of young academics and two A-rated researchers.

Flagship projects

Unisa has identified research priority areas that involve all colleges of the university community:

•    In the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences the focus is on research into the environment, health and sustainable livelihoods. One study is the Fog Harvesting Project, where ongoing research provides a lifeline to rural communities with little or no access to clean and pure water.
•    In the College of Economic and Management Sciences, the Micro- and Macroeconomic Modelling Project provides methods to research current trends and predict important future trends.
•    In the College of Education is the Unisa Centre for Childhood Education which acts as a major research site for improving early childhood education in South Africa and the rest of the continent.
•    In the College of Law, the Biotechnology and Medical Law flagship project provides expertise and undertakes research on medical law issues.

Makhanya is concerned that future goals are important to Unisa. “It is Unisa’s performance as a graduator of quality graduates that will ensure its continued excellent reputation. Let us not falter in ensuring that we build on the wonderful legacy that has been left to us. Let us make our contributions to shaping futures.”