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Radical adjustments needed if universities are to make it easier for people to study while working

It’s not easy for those who are already working to study towards a degree. Shutterstock

South Africa’s government wants to make it easier for more people to enrol in higher education. Part of its mission is to improve access for adults who are already working but wish to qualify for either a first or further tertiary qualification. The reasons for this relate to issues of redress and provision of lifelong learning opportunities for economic, social and personal development.

But for flexible learning and teaching to really work, there must be major structural changes and attitude shifts – both within universities and from companies whose employees want to study further while keeping their jobs.

The University of the Western Cape, led by a team from its Lifelong Learning division, and the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) have spent the past three years exploring whether it’s possible to move beyond university education’s familiar binaries. These binaries include the ideas of part-time versus full-time tuition and daytime lectures versus night classes.

New thinking

The university is about 20 minutes from Cape Town’s city centre. Over the past few years it has seen the partial closure of after-hours or evening classes. This has been driven by a number of factors: government pressure to increase the number of young students without increased financial support; pressure on academics to publish which limits their capacity to do a double shift; the scarcity of safe public transport in the evenings.

New thinking on the issue has been driven by access for working and first-generation students being a core part of the university’s mission. This dates back to when it was established in 1960s. Since the 1980s, in opposition to the apartheid government, it continued to prioritise access for politically and economically disadvantaged students, most of whom were working or needing to work.

Several relevant units have been involved in the research and pilot sites were established in three different faculties – political studies, library and information sciences and public health.

We sought to make the process as participative as possible through:

  • developing a working definition of what is meant by flexible learning and teaching provision. This was tested in 31 interviews with senior teaching and learning specialists, deans and academics and a survey across all faculties;

  • supporting pilot sites to develop and theorise innovative approaches to teaching and learning; and

  • making documentation available regularly to the university’s leadership and to academics through seminars, workshops and Senate committees. This encouraged discussion and the building of “common knowledge”.

Institutional change

This research lays the ground for flexible learning and teaching that will meet the needs of all students. But for it to work, there must be major changes within a university’s own structures.

For starters, universities must have a framework for flexible teaching and learning provision for all students. This should work with all four institutional sub-systems – those for teaching, students, delivery and administration.

There are often blockages to flexibility in all four of these sub-systems. These include regulations around staff flexi-time, the use of venues, rules for assessment and admissions.

The next step is to implement, as a pilot, an entire undergraduate degree using flexible learning and teaching principles. This should follow a process of research and development. It would need to be linked to a detailed project implementation plan for a three- to five-year period. It requires political will from university leaders and dedicated funding to work.

There are already pockets of innovative, flexible, quality teaching and learning taking place, which should be rewarded and incentivised. This encourages a sustained culture of educational access and innovation across an institution.

For this to happen, leaders at all levels of an institution must undergo professional development that teaches them about these concepts. This kind of training is available through organisations such as the Cape Higher Education Consortium, which represents all four of Cape Town’s universities.

Many of the processes followed during the research, and the resources created, have been gathered in one place so that institutions can access them and explore the role of flexible learning and teaching for themselves. Popular materials are also to be disseminated by SAQA.

Employers have a major role to play

Employers also need to make some changes so that their employees can take advantage of flexible learning opportunities.

They need to check their own study leave policies against the country’s labour laws and make sure that what is offered is adequate. Working learners then need support in the form of bursaries, flexi-time facilities and negotiated access to and use of computers for study purposes.

Crucially, working learners’ newly acquired knowledge must be affirmed and drawn on to add value to the workplace. Studying while working must be seen as what it is: something to be celebrated, which carries forward the government’s goal and improves both individual’s lives and their company’s capacity.

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