SOUTH AFRICA: Boom in adult basic education

Dreams of attracting large numbers of mature students into higher education in South Africa, especially those who missed out under apartheid, have proved to be just that – dreams. Universities have had their hands full accommodating a swelling student body of school-leavers, although they and private providers also enrol a quarter of a million adults on mostly short courses. And adult basic education is booming: in the largest programme of its kind in the world, the distance-learning University of South Africa has trained more than 80,000 adult basic education practitioners since the mid-1990s – and it is hoped that many of its graduates will participate in a huge literacy campaign starting this month.

Professor Veronica McKay, director of the Institute for Adult Basic Education and Training at Unisa – who describes herself as "a sociologist gone wrong" – has been seconded to the national Department of Education to head the Kha ri Gude or ‘Let us learn’ literacy campaign. In its pilot phase this year the campaign aims to reach 20,000 volunteer teachers and get them to offer classes to 300,000 adult learners. The number will rise to 1.2 million adult learners a year for the next four years.

Advertisements calling for the volunteers started appearing in newspapers last week and McKay hopes many of the Unisa graduates will take part. The ABET Institute she runs with the support of colleague Elijah Sekjobela offers courses from one-year certificate level to bachelor, honours and research masters and doctoral degrees.

With 17 core staff, the institute last year had 17,000 students enrolled in distance education courses that apply the Open University model of providing course packs (including audio and visual materials) plus support from tutors. The institute has more than 300 tutors, all postgraduates, spread throughout the country where there are clusters of students.

McKay and Professor John Aitchison, former head of the school of adult and higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, were part of a government committee created in 2005 to undertake large-scale research into literacy development in a range of countries, including India and Brazil, and to plan the Kha ri Gude campaign. Last year, McKay helped develop learning materials – now produced in South Africa's 11 official languages – as well as lesson plans to support adult learning in basic numeracy and basic English literacy.

"We trained about 85 master teachers last weekend and will now be recruiting 1,200 supervisors, each of whom must be a graduate and will provide support and training to a further 10 volunteer teachers each during the pilot phase," she says. "It is a big and ambitious programme, and it is not without its problems."

The ABET Institute and other long-running ABET centres in universities such as KwaZulu-Natal, the Witwatersrand and Western Cape, have grown since the advent of democracy in 1994. This is a result of the massive need for adult education in South Africa – some 9.5 million people out of a total population of 47 million require some form of educational assistance.

Students at the institute are taught generic adult basic education skills that enable them to teach and work in a range of areas. Students learn to present and manage ABET programmes, to use, design and evaluate materials, to assess learners, and to analyse the learning needs and social contexts of adult learners.

"We produce practitioners who are able to teach adults who need a basic education and to work in a variety of sectors such as community development, health, labour relations and NGOs," McKay says. "There are also specialist courses in areas such as literacy and numeracy, English, and teaching of trades, health education, environmental education and water sanitation."

Many of the 240,000 people enrolled in distance courses through the University of South Africa are mature students while other higher education institutions offer 'University of Life' programmes for adults in areas ranging from local history to African languages and bird watching.

From the early 1990s, many universities and private colleges went into distance education, offering low-cost courses including in the high-demand area of teacher education, on main as well as satellite campuses in areas poorly served by higher education. Concerned about standards, the Council on Higher Education's quality committee set up an accreditation system that resulted in many of the institutions or courses being forced to close, thereby reducing adult learning opportunities – but ensuring the quality of those that remained.

Patrick Fish of Higher Education South Africa, the vice-chancellors' body, says mature students are "mostly not on the radar”. A great many short courses for adults are for-profit and, though many offer internationally recognised qualifications, they are not registered with the South African Qualifications Authority. The guesstimate is 250,000 mature learners on courses outside the SAQA system.

Public contact universities have generally not been successful in attracting mature students onto mainstream degree programmes, aside from ubiquitous MBAs, and so the post-apartheid ideal of opening access to public higher education for growing numbers of mature and non-traditional students has mostly not translated into reality, Fish says.