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Taking stock of postgraduate students in open and distance learning institutions

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High graduation rates are essential for innovation in modern industrialised societies. This is particularly true for postgraduate degrees. That’s because people who hold postgraduate qualifications have acquired the skills and knowledge that underpin the modern knowledge economy. They also have the capacity to produce new knowledge.

At less than 15% a year, South Africa has one of the lowest graduation rates at Master’s and doctoral levels. Developed countries like the US produce 288 doctoral students per every million citizens a year. Britain produces 395 students for every million of the total population. In developing countries such as Argentina, for every 100 students who enter universities only 12 graduate. Brazil graduates 48 doctoral students for every million citizens.

One of the ways in which South Africa is trying to close its knowledge and skills gap is the use of open and distance learning. This refers to a mode of learning and teaching that limits problems of physical distance. It does so by accommodating students in remote locations who are unable or unwilling to physically attend classes at a campus.

Although it has increased graduation rates across the higher education spectrum, open and distance learning still poses challenges for postgraduate students.

In a distance learning environment, the difficulties of postgraduate supervision are compounded by the geographical distance between students and supervisors. In a study that used the University of South Africa (UNISA) as an example, we sought to understand the institutionalised support offered to postgraduate students in the open and distance learning environment.

Our research found that postgraduate students were mostly happy with the quality of academic and research support they received at UNISA. However, they wanted more regular feedback from their supervisors, and greater administrative support.

Supporting distant postgraduate students

UNISA is the biggest open distance learning institution in Africa. Among the colleges (faculties) at UNISA is the College of Graduate Studies, which provides a central hub of support for Master’s and doctoral students at the university. One of its tasks is to nurture and support the research community.

It works with other colleges at the institution and also partners with other universities. Various policies are in place to ensure the quality of the supervision offered to postgraduate students.

Once a student is accepted, a supervisor who has shown demonstrable research achievement and output on the subject, is appointed. The institution also makes arrangements, where necessary, for a supervisory team to ensure that the student has a point of contact at all times during the period of study.

Our work focused on how students experienced the college’s services.

We found that the majority of students (69%) were satisfied with the research guidance they received from their supervisors, while 31% expressed dissatisfaction. More than half of the students (56%) were dissatisfied with the regularity of feedback from the supervisors.

Students felt that regular contact and feedback with the supervisor played a vital role in the success of their studies. But most respondents (52%) said they were not satisfied with the time they had for informal discussion with their supervisors. Only 48% were satisfied with this.

The study also revealed that student support services need to be strengthened. These are services available on campus to facilitate learning, such as administrative services, financial aid and scholarships. The students were dissatisfied (58%) with the quality of administrative services they received and only 42% expressed satisfaction with the services.

The participants in our study were positive about the access they had to open and distance learning resources. These are suitable, sufficient and relevant library resources and information and communications technology infrastructure – they’re essential tools for students to succeed in their studies. Students were satisfied with the library services and many of them agreed (88%) that the library facilities supported their research endeavours.

Students said they had access to a range of database and electronic resources. Many of them (76%) were satisfied with the assistance they received from the library staff, while 24% expressed dissatisfaction. There were low levels of satisfaction about the availability of scholarships for supporting postgraduate students (39%) against a high level of dissatisfaction (61%).

The way forward

These findings emphasise that higher education institutions which offer open distance learning must make sure they are doing enough to support students – especially those at postgraduate level. By ensuring that proper systems are in place, universities can make sure that distance is no obstacle to students feeling supported, nurtured and academically challenged.

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