Book review: A review of “Unisa, 1873 to 2018” by Andrew Manson

A study of the history of South Africa’s premier distance learning institution

Unisa: 1873-2018

Although the subject matter might seem a little dry author Andrew Manson has produced a fascinating insight into the ever-changing South African political environment and how this affected the ability of the University of South Africa (Unisa) to provide quality education to its students throughout its 145-year history.

I had initially approached reading this book as I would a textbook. However, even before I had completed the first chapter my opinion had changed.

The history of Unisa is an intriguing and very detailed history of the university from its earliest beginnings as the University of the Cape of Good Hope. In the first place, it was a political football with business magnate Cecil John Rhodes advocating that the institution remain an English medium university and the Afrikaners advocating for a Dutch medium university in order to keep their language alive.

Of course, over such a large and politically charged period in the history of the country, Unisa was used by the ruling political party of the time and was encouraged and even forced to toe the line with official policy but, through it all Unisa was largely responsible as the main examination authority and administrated examinations carried out at its satellite colleges such as Rhodes University College (RUC), Grey University College (GUC), Transvaal University College (TUC) and Huguenot University College (HUC) and several other institutions, as well as administration of school examinations for several schools.

Unisa began its life in the Cape Colony and was named University of the Cape of Good Hope (UCOGH) when it was founded in 1873, and changed its name to the University of South Africa (Unisa) when it moved from the Cape to Pretoria just over 100 years ago, in 1918.

It was forced to continuously modify its operation based upon the political influences of the time. There was a constant battle for control of the university’s complex system of convocation, senate and administration throughout its history with regard to its educational, political and language policies, with the Broderbund exerting influence along the pressures of other external forces.

Sometimes Unisa conceded to demands, sometimes it stood in support of its own principles and sometimes it simply capitulated to the demands of the time. However it was, at the same time, responsible for advocating the education of women, the study of art and music.

However, it is clear that Unisa has played a major part in the educational history of South Africa and its influence of education throughout the African continent. It is estimated that two out of every 10 people registered for degrees in South Africa are Unisa students.

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