As the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela and celebrates his life, his role as an educator will get scant attention. Yet, for those who spent many years with him on Robben Island as political prisoner often speak of him as a teacher. Indeed, one of his long time friends from this time sometimes refers to him as Professor Mandela, founder of Robben Island University.
While on Robben Island, Mandela was a student at the University of South Africa (UNISA) – he secured a degree in law by distance education, ironically something which is not possible in Canada as the Provincial law societies have not yet accepted online law degrees as “legitimate”. UNISA was the world’s first “correspondence” university, beginning this work in 1959 – the university itself traces its history back to 1873. While many, like the University of London, had offered some correspondence courses much earlier (Queen Victoria chartered the University of London in 1858), few operated across a range of disciplines at the scale of UNISA. Indeed, the founding of the Open University in Britain in the 1960s was, in part, inspired by the success and scale of UNISA’s operation.
When he came to power, Mandela saw education as the key to the future of South Africa. In a major speech in 2003 he said, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world” and he meant it – he increased the funding for UNISA and renewed the Government’s commitment to its future.
UNISA is one of the worlds most successful online and distance learning universities, celebrating its 140th year in 2013. In 2012-13 it had over 328,000 students studying across a range of faculties. It is also the driving force for innovation in the use of online learning and open education resources in Africa and partners with many of the newly emerging Open Universities and Open Colleges in Nigeria, Botswana, and other countries of the Commonwealth.
Indeed, the Commonwealth is aggressively pursuing open and distance education as it seeks to meet the educational needs of its 53 states. New open and distance learning institutions are being created in Mauritius, Namibia, and Bangalore. Existing institutions in Nigeria, Botswana, Bangladesh, India, Caribbean and Sri Lanka are expanding. The Commonwealth Ministers of Education created the Virtual University of the Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC), where 31 countries have direct access to 15 programs collaboratively developed across these nations with a further 15 in preparation. VUSSC has also established a Transnational Qualifications Framework which permits all programs and courses within them to be easily transferable across these nations and, through reciprocal agreements, the whole of Europe. Canada has no such transfer agreements between its Provinces and Territories.
Open schools for elementary, secondary and higher education are a priority development in many countries, especially those which would find it impossible to provide face to face educational institutions for all those who need primary and secondary education or those who demand higher education. The Commonwealth of Learning, based in Vancouver, is working in partnership with many governments and educational systems to secure open schools as quality, affordable and effective institutions which can have an impact on learning and society. Mandela would have been proud and, in fact, supported such developments through his own foundation.
So, as we watch the world celebrate the life and achievements of Mandela, the great educator, we should reflect on how his own chosen method of learning – distance education – has helped inspire developments around the Commonwealth which make access to and success in learning more possible for more people.
December 8th 2013