What are the challenges of being a private institution?
Private institutions are operating in a very regulated space without access to public funding of any sort. This requires private providers to leverage significant technical, intellectual and financial resources to develop programmes and deliver them in a quality-driven teaching and learning environment. It entails a long-term and very significant commitment on the part of any institution that wants to achieve scale in its success and, very importantly, its throughput rates. As an institution we are committed to contributing in a significant way to graduate headcounts and to producing graduates of quality that can take up a position in South Africa and beyond our shores. I believe that one of the challenges we face as a private institution is finance for students, as mentioned, we are not subsidised by government in any way. Our learners often do not understand why they cannot apply for government funding. To address this we have built in a number of solutions such as our own extended payment options, which are available to suit just about any pocket.
How important is it to educate students not just for a career, but for life? Does this approach give you a competitive advantage over other institutions?
All institutions champion “learning for life” to a greater or lesser extent but at Boston it is part of our defining ethos. Our entire approach to programme design and delivery is directed at this mission and is an intrinsic part of every aspect of what we do. For this reason I do believe it delivers a competitive edge to Boston. From the start, we adopted a payoff line to reflect this ethos: “Education. For Life”. We definitely have lived and breathed this into the everyday culture of the business. We do this by ensuring that we offer relevant and up-to-date qualifications and programmes that meet industry requirements and demands. Our liaison with corporate and industry ensures not only that we are in touch with industry demands, but also that we are able to impart said requirements to our learners. In this way we create graduates who are not only skilled in the knowledge that they have acquired, but also who are “work-ready”. We are confident we provide relevant and lifelong learning to every graduate of Boston.
Do your students have a different approach or willingness to learn compared to those at other education organisations?
Given that we have one foot in face-to-face education and one in distance education we are able to glean useful insights into student conduct and academic behaviour. Our view is that the mode of delivery is to a large extent dictated by the nature of the qualification and we therefore assign different qualification types to our two brands – Boston City Campus & Business College as the distance higher education provider and Boston Media House as the contact higher education provider. Media qualifications tend to require a more hands-on approach to learning due to the practical nature of the skills taught. Returning to the question, I don’t think our students take a very different approach in comparison to other institutions nor do they necessarily demonstrate a greater or lesser willingness to learn. What I think has changed is the world in which students come to higher education. Higher education students quickly redefine their engagement with education – whether a residential institution or a distance institution – the moment they enter higher education. There is a drive to become economically active at the earliest opportunity and the general rush to complete a qualification sooner rather than later has shifted the epistemological and ontological project for the majority of students. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it does present risks, as much as it presents opportunities, to curriculum design and teaching and learning practices as well as to monitoring and managing the student body. This must be done in ways that don’t stifle these new creative tensions but still allow the institution to deliver quality-driven qualifications and graduates in order to fulfil its social and economic mandate. I don’t believe it is the willingness or different approach of the learner, but rather the willingness and different approach of our institution. We have developed a unique learning methodology that has evolved over the 25 years we have been providing quality education. The success of this methodology as appropriate to the qualification is evident in our throughput rate. This approach includes monitoring, mentoring and delivery of interactive learning materials, on both our higher education brands, coupled with support from training advisors and experts.
You’re unique in terms of your wide range of more practical courses as well as the fact that you have over 40 tuition centres in South Africa (and a huge student body). What are the benefits of this to you as a provider of education?
Our distance brand – Boston City Campus & Business College – benefits significantly from our regional infrastructure, providing easy access to ICT, administration services, examination centres and a student culture. Our size and shape evolved over two decades through our commitment to, and passion for, entry-level occupational skills and training. The result is that we are now able to realise our mission of providing lifelong learning access and pathways from the lower levels of the qualifications framework all the way to higher education. This is done in an institutional context in which students can flourish alongside other students and with the support of dedicated admin staff at our regional support centres. It is important to understand that our methodology ensures that consistent and high standards are maintained throughout South Africa at all our Support Centres. It was of great importance to us that we set and maintained those high standards, and this has been achieved through our methodology of training. Students are also able to transfer to other Boston branches seamlessly if they do so require without any interruptions.
What is your institution doing in terms of playing a role in managing change within socio-economic turmoil?
Boston has always positioned itself as a brand that is able to offer a comprehensive range of programmes designed with a focus on employment, and at accessible price points. This brand promise has allowed us to realise our vision and purpose and we are very optimistic that we will continue to make a valuable contribution. I also believe we are fortunate and had a great head start in recognising the social-economic turmoil within South Africa. While training is presented in English and is suitable for first language English speaking learners, our unique methodology of training enables learners to repeat lessons, ask for assistance and get one-on-one advice. In this way we have ensured that we have tackled socio-economic challenges of learners from different educational and language backgrounds head-on. We also offer a range of courses and programmes to suit just about anyone. From a short learning programme in computer skills, through to degree programmes. We strongly promote career counselling, provided at no charge, to match the students interests, talents and skills with an appropriate course, ensuring the right course is registered for from day one. An appropriate match of learner to qualification reduces fees wastage and vastly increases success in their programme.
Has Boston suffered any damage or delays as a result of the recent student uprisings?
No, although we remain cognisant of the risks and opportunities that recent upheavals present to the private provider sector. As we are a private educational institution we were not affected by the student uprising and, as explained, we do not receive any funding. What we did do however is take cognizance of our fee structures and where possible at Boston City Campus & Business College (as sometimes we are faced with exchange rates for external examining bodies such as CompTIA), we did not have a fee increase. We also include all our textbooks in our offerings so there are no surprises for the student, their fees quoted include all study expenses.
How have you been able to provide support to students at risk?
A variety of support mechanisms are in place to underpin ‘at-risk’ students. In certain instances psycho-social counselling sessions are very beneficial, other alternatives include allowing access to supplementary opportunities and/or educators providing one-on-one feedback to re-motivate and guide students. Boston monitors each and every individual student, and where required we intervene to offer the student support through repeat lectures, support staff to offer one on one assistance, additional suggested reading, and our methodology of training refers to real life experiences to help put the topic into perspective.
What is the most moving memory you have in terms of students from poorer backgrounds who have achieved against the odds?
It is possibly best to let these bursary students speak for themselves? Here are some comments we have received from students:
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the opportunity you gave me. I would like to inform you that I passed all my modules. May God bless you and give you strength to continue with your generosity and thoughtfulness to others.” Thank you. Motsamai Motsamai Ernest
“I am writing this email to express how thankful I am for giving me an opportunity to complete my degree with an academic institution with a good reputation. The opportunity you gave me will change my life once I get employed. It will not only change my life but my whole family too, once I get a job my mother who has been a domestic worker for 21years will be able rest too, and I will be able to take my brother through school. From the bottom of my heart sir I would like to say thank, Ngiyabonga you have really made a difference in my life.” Regards Linda Lornor Mthombeni
Boston has always been a leader and innovator in the educational sphere. Having recognized the dire need for financial assistance required by so many learners, a bursary system was instituted that has been formalized over the years and is now run by a full committee that meets twice a year. We were at the forefront of offering bursaries, starting from our recognition of the enormous need for qualified Black accountants in South Africa. I have many meetings still today with those graduates and probably one of my most moving memories is meeting for coffee with a graduate who now works at a large bank. He holds a high position, drives a beautiful car, has an amazing family and owns his own home. Looking me in the eyes he said to me, “Without Boston, I would be breaking shop windows to survive”. That really drove home that we have made a difference in so many lives – there are many similar stories I could tell.
What do you see as the major challenges for education in SA, and what are the strengths of what we can offer local and international students?
South Africa has many strengths to offer learners, these include the transparent and stable quality assurance systems established by the statutory bodies i.e. Council on Higher Education, UMALUSI, Quality Council for Trades and Occupations and the South African Qualifications Authority. These allow students and graduates with seamless articulation options between institutions and programmes, access to international and local employer recognition for which verification is effortless.
However there are also challenges. One of these major challenges for the SA education system remains the need to widen access. And another is to increase throughput consisting of graduates that are in demand. Reach, access and fees are probably three of the most critical challenges that we face as educators, and that we as an institution are constantly working on. Providing quality private education at affordable fees and providing access to a broad South African market is one of the goals we strive to deliver.
Strengths for the campus are that we are an award-winning institution having achieved the status of 1st in South Africa and 3rd Globally by CompTIA based on our throughput rate and having been voted ‘Best College’ for seven years running in the Your Choice Awards. The value of these awards carries through to our graduates in the recognition our brand receives, and its reputation.