Open University of Tanzania spreads wings abroad

The Open University of Tanzania is reaching out to higher education institutions in neighbouring countries to establish collaborations that will encourage more international students to enrol for distance learning.

Vice-chancellor Professor Tolly Mbwette said the institution’s board hoped to spread its influence regionally: “We are now the largest distance learning university in the region and our plan is to take distance learning to most countries in East Africa and those under the Southern African Development Community [SADC] by 2016.”

East African Community countries being targeted by the Open University of Tanzania, or OUT, include Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. It’s eye is also on the SADC countries of Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The vice-chancellor told University World News that the planned foray into foreign countries builds on existing relationships, with the university having previously recruited distance learning students in these countries.

The new push will make OUT courses more convenient: “Foreign students were required to come to Tanzania to do their exams. But now it will be possible for students in other countries to study and sit for their exams right where they are.”

International students

The university currently has 967 foreign students from 33 countries. Cumulatively, 92,568 students have been enrolled by the university for a wide range of undergraduate, postgraduate and non-degree programmes in the 20 years since it was launched.

Curriculum development expert Dr Evaristo Mtitu said foreign students had been enrolled since 2007.

Rwanda has been the largest source of overseas students, with 342 taking OUT courses, followed by Namibia with 328 students and Kenya with 143 students. In 2014, the three countries again accounted for the most students: Rwanda 220 students, Namibia 138 and Kenya 59.

“Swaziland, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Senegal, Ghana, Burundi, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Seychelles, Cameroon, Tunisia, Niger, DRC, Sierra Leone and Togo had students enrolled in 2014 for the very first time,” noted Mtitu.

The Tanzanian university has also recruited five students from the United States, three each from Sweden and Germany, two each from South Korea and the Netherlands, and one each from Italy, Finland and Saudi Arabia.

Regional centres

Currently, OUT conducts operations through 25 regional centres and 69 study centres, most of them within Tanzania. But it has also opened operational centres in Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi and Namibia.

Vice-chancellor Mbwette said there would soon also be centres in Burundi and Uganda. “What is holding us up is mandatory approval from the respective countries’ education authorities.”

In Kenya, OUT has opened a centre in the capital Nairobi and a liaison office at a partner institution, Egerton University based in Nakuru, which specialises in agriculture.

In Rwanda, the Tanzanian university has opened centres in Kibungo, in the Ngoma district, mainly for postgraduate studies leading to masters and PhD qualifications.

“Initially we had planned to partner with the National University of Rwanda but things did not work out. Now, after opening up the centre, we are looking forward to working with Rwanda Tourism University College to offer specialist courses,” said Mbwette.

Ugandan education licensing authorities are looking at an OUT application to work with the Uganda Martyrs University and the Ugandan Management Training and Advisory Centre. In Namibia, OUT works through Triumphant College in Windhoek.

In Malawi it has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Malawi College of Distance Education. Malawi centres, in partner college premises at Lilongwe and Mzuzu, currently offer vocational training courses only – but the aim is to start offering diplomas and degrees through the centres.

“In Malawi we are getting more inquiries about our degree programmes. We have put in an application for clearance to start offering courses for higher qualifications. This could get through by 2015,” said the vice-chancellor.

In Burundi, groundwork has only just started but he is hopeful that all of East Africa will be covered by a network of OUT-linked centres by the end of 2015.

Mbwette said government-to-government agreements on mutual recognition of higher education, negotiated under the umbrella of SADC and the East African Community, means the university’s certification by the Tanzania Commission for Universities is enough to secure registration and partnerships in many of the other countries.

“Our academic certificates are also recognised internationally in the same manner. Fees are charged across the board, with foreign students incurring no additional costs,” noted the vice-chancellor.

Modern delivery

The university uses face-to-face teaching, broadcasting, telecasting, correspondence, seminars, e-learning as well as blended modes of delivery.

“We have fully computerised delivery of teaching materials and now the university actually gives no guarantee of [supplying] printed material,” said Mbwette.

The use of English, Portuguese and French as official lecture languages has added to the university’s international appeal. “Save for Arabic, we are truly African and in a good position to develop African content,” he added.

Rapidly expanding information and communications technology platforms mean that the university can ponder the future with real ambition: “We are alive to the fact that increased demand for higher education that cannot be accommodated by traditional campuses makes e-learning a necessity in Africa.”

Mbwette said that at OUT, students and lecturers are encouraged to develop and trial apps to simplify their engagement. “The university is now piloting a study on the use of mobile tablets to deliver our content at the convenience of users. The mobile revolution offers a promising e-learning sector based on mobile applications.”

He said that with the availability and expansion of broadband, the vision of the university was to fully automate its examinations system and make it demand-driven.

“We do not follow the traditional exam calendar and this means that in future students could ask to sit for their exams whenever they want to. We should be able to set the exams at the click of a button,” he said.