My Mixed Feelings on UNISA and South Africa

Recently I received an email from a fellow scholar without a doctorate, who had read one of my blog entries about the University of South Africa (UNISA) and my work towards a doctorate.  I was going to just respond back to him directly, but I am one to want “more effect for the effort”, so I’m posting my current thoughts about UNISA, South Africa, and the interconnection between them.

First, I believe deeply in the ideals of Mandela’s South Africa and UNISA’s vision “Towards the African university in the service of humanity”.  But the current state of both are problematic.   And while I’ve been a little hesitant to write about the problems, being concerned with potential reprisal, I have decided to publicly share my thoughts with the desire that they might help UNISA, and let others from the U.S. who may go down this path know about the “good, the bad, and the ugly”.

First, the Problems:

The Fate of South Africa and its Impact on UNISA Graduates in the U.S.

A recent article on The Economist notes:

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, dedicated himself to strengthening institutions of the country’s nascent democracy; not least by stepping down after a single term. Bar the occasional blow, his successor, Thabo Mbeki, kept them broadly intact. Sadly, the current president, Jacob Zuma, seems bent on smashing their very foundations.

If South Africa continues to go down this type of path, its brand and image will also change from being sterling to being that of mud.  This is why a good friend of mine recently cautioned me about what a degree from UNISA might be like, he said basically: “If you got a degree from University of Zimbabwe when people still thought Robert Mugabe was a hero, would it be a benefit or detriment to have this on your resume now?”   And he has quite a point, UNISA is only viable as being legitimate because South Africa is currently considered one of the most legitimate African nations, and the fact that Nelson Mandela was a graduate of UNISA adds esteem.

Thus, earning a degree from UNISA is a gamble on the future of South Africa, with political forces that are outside of much of the control or influence we might have as graduates.

UNISA’s Inflexible and Inept Bureaucracy

I’ve received several emails from those interested in UNISA because when they tried to contact the University themselves, they have never received a reply.  This problem is reduced by working with Dr. Michael Esselen, who runs International Academic Correspondence Inc.  And while he is quite friendly and works to be helpful, I have had at times some challenges communicating with him, and it is clear that UNISA’s bureaucracy doesn’t work that much better for him, despite him having a little more of an “inside track”.

For example, after I first registered, and heard nothing back from UNISA, I followed up with him a few times, which he graciously passed forward to UNISA.  In the end, I ended up with about 5 acceptance letters!

Another example, is when I recently finished my submission of my doctoral thesis research proposal, because of when I submitted it, I need to wait an entire year to re-register, and possibly another entire year to have it approved before I can start on my actual research.  To be fair, this is partly my issue, due to me having several “false starts” from issues in my life with work (or lack thereof), and also changing my mind a few times about what my research would focus on.  And, U.S. universities are not always that much better in this type of situation.  But, it is still quite frustrating for me, especially when my research is mostly self-paced and doesn’t have to rely upon traditional scheduling constraints as would an undergraduate course.

But, there are Still Some Great Things about UNISA

South Africa and UNISA are Built on the Philosophical Ideal of “Ubuntu”

The ubuntu philosophy is the basis for what Nelson Mandela started, and why a major Linux operating system is named Ubuntu.  It is also a foundation of UNISA as was explained in a letter they sent me when I enrolled.  “Ubuntu” is often translated to mean “humanity toward others”, or “I am because we are”.  This is the strength of love, and I hope still that love is greater than fear.

UNISA is the only Major Virtual Onshored University to the U.S. from a Developing Nation

I have been talking recently about “virtual onshoring“, a term I coined in 2008.  Having looked at a lot of potential universities that might be doing this from a developing nation, UNISA is the only one I have thus far been able to find that is in the U.S. market.  Although, I believe that if another online university from a developing nation targets the U.S. market, they could easily be far more successful than UNISA has been.

Because UNISA is in a Developing Economy, and the Dollar is Strong it is Extremely Reasonably Priced

This is one of the biggest selling points for a UNISA degree.  Despite the headache of their bureaucracy, and the fact that students in the U.S. cannot get financial aid or traditional student loans to attend, it is still extremely low in price, where my whole doctorate will surely cost less than $5,000, and possibly less than $3,000.   When other comparable online doctorates are around $30,000, this is a steal!

UNISA allows Doctoral Students more Freedom and Potentially Quicker Completion than an online U.S. university can

Because UNISA follows the British system of doctorate through research, one does not need to take other classes beyond those that focus on their doctoral research.  This means, that if one does things right, they may be able to finish their doctorate in as little as 1 to 2 years (although my situation is not uncommon where it takes more time).   Also, I have been able to have almost infinite choice in what I wanted my research to be about, as long as it is sufficiently rigorous and worthwhile.

UNISA has some Excellent Professors, and the Rigor of Education is Equal or Better than many Online U.S. Colleges

While I cannot speak for all the faculty of UNISA, my two initial mentor professors, Dr. Liz Archer and Dr. Paul Prinsloo were terrific, and UNISA does a lot of work to match doctoral students up with the right professors.   And comparing the expectations from UNISA to those I had with Nova Southeastern University in my Masters program, I believe that the rigor of education is actually higher with UNISA.  While granted, a doctorate is expected to be higher than a masters, but even from what I see in U.S. online doctoral programs, I think UNISA is generally more rigorous in thought and scientific method.

So Do I Recommend UNISA for U.S. Doctoral Students?

With some hesitation, I still say “Yes, I recommend UNISA for a doctorate”.  The quality of actual education is high, and the price point is low.  And the brand of South Africa be damned if it goes to hell in a hand basket 🙂  But, what I value (freedom, rigor, and independence) may not be the same (or at the same levels) as what others value in a doctoral program, so I hope that this article helps other potential UNISA doctoral students to have some more information that can help them make their decision.



  1. The following is from Karen Masters, posted on Facebook, but it is quite relevant, so I’m cross-posting it here:

    I am in complete agreement with your assessment of Unisa. I could not have hoped for a better supervising professor, and the other faculty I have worked with in the department have been wonderful. However, the bureaucratic delays are almost comical. I’ve been working on my doctoral thesis for almost a year now, and last week I got a notification from the registrar that my thesis proposal had been accepted!

  2. Hi, I am a UNISA DlittetPhil candidate. My experience, with the exception of some initial hiccups, has been good. When I had a “system” problem, my advisor handled it and got it resolved. She is absolutely wonderful.

    My research proposal was approved in about 21 days from the day I submitted it.

    • Yes, it seems that most of the issues (and I’m having some more as I’m re-applying) are with the initial registration. My experience with my advisors, the first time I was going to UNISA, was absolutely great.

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