Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director, The Independent Institute of Education Group Academic Director – ADvTECH

Dr Felicity Coughlan - IIE.JPG

What is your competitive advantage as a higher education institution?

The Independent Institute of Education (IIE) is able to offer students a learning experience tailored for their niche needs and aspirations, as we have retained a strong focus on the particular offerings of our brands while leveraging all the value of our collective size and strength. We are thus able to offer our students a personally appropriate experience normally more accessible in smaller environments while offering them and their families and other account payers the security that comes from our reach and scale and stability.

What do you see as the major challenges for education in SA and what are the strengths that we can offer for local and international students?

The challenges are interrelated and in the end boil down to providing educated graduates who are able to contribute to the existing economy while being able to contribute to an economy still to come. The extent to which we can combine the development of skills that are immediately productive with the knowledge and vision for an even more uncertain future education in SA will deterime our success. It will similarly continue to experience huge challenges if it functions – institutionally and/or as a system or part of a system – in isolation. Education is a social process that is both informed by society and needs to inform and shape it so successful education is collaborative and responsive and flexible while not losing touch with the fundamental demand to help students acquire productive social and economic skills, knowledge and values.

Has IIE suffered any damage or delays as a result of the recent student uprisings?

[FJC] SA Youth are angry and disillusioned and while private higher education may not have experienced direct disruption on our campuses we are part of a broader system being confronted with very real questions and really difficult choices between equally complex and challenging alternatives. Private higher education does best when it can operate as a viable alternative for individual students in a secure and stable and productive educational environment – we do best when students choose us as we meet their personal aspirations and not just because of uncertainty in other contexts.  So a volatile higher education sector impacts on us all.

What has been your experience of the problems facing students at risk?

Risk is inherent to life. All students – even the most resilient – face the risk of not realising their ambitions if sufficient factors conspire against them. In SA our various legacies of inequity mean that students do not enter higher education with equal chances of succeeding for structural reasons. Our approach therefore is to ensure that the first semester of the first year includes – for all students – a solid focus on core skills required for success and the mechanisms to identify the particular risk profiles of students who need more than that as soon as possible. By combining a focus on core skills (such as reasoning, argumentation, academic literacy, research and writing) with a clearer focus on performance in the very first assessment in a discipline, we believe we have process that maximises chances of success by targeting interventions where they are needed and when they are needed. A further key part of our at risk strategy is related to the quality of our lecturers and the work we do to ensure that they are best equipped to deal with the student transition to higher education. We know that the quality of the lecturer in the first six months has significant impact on student motivation and confidence as well as integration of core skills and attitudes to work.

How does the situation of students at risk in South Africa compare to countries overseas, and what has been the feedback you have had internationally regarding our local problems? 

The concept of at risk is an international one and the issues of academic literacy and reasoning and thinking are universal. Of particular significance though is that these were issues in the 1920’s too – in other words the reality is that students are facing significant challenges and these are not being discounted BUT higher education has always thought that schools do not prepare students adequately for higher education. The truth is on the continuum depending on the context – perhaps the real challenge is that higher education needs to consider its own expectations and how it enables transition as much as it focuses on what students don’t get from schools. Increasingly the most progressive institutions challenge their academics to focus on facilitating the transition rather than seeing it as building a bridge across a divide.

What message do you want to convey to the public as well as to the private sector in terms of the issues facing these students? Furthermore, what is the importance to South African society and the economy of providing these students with the support they need?

I presume you are referring to those that are least likely to succeed if nothing changes?  Higher education is expensive – for the society and the individual – and therefore once someone has been accepted against whatever standards are set for that acceptance, there is an economic, social and moral imperative to maximise their chances of success. Current attrition rates are not sustainable and have enormous impact not least of which on the wellbeing of the student who fails. Inculcating a culture of success and shared responsibility from day one rather than a fear of failure “stick” approach in terms of student transition to higher education is critical.

Please share some background in terms of the development and growth of IIE?

The Independent Institute of Education now has more than 30 000 students enrolled in higher education qualifications – it operates through its Varsity College, Rosebank College, Vega and DSSA brands to deliver everything from higher certificates to Masters degrees on 20 campuses across the country. It was established in 2005 when AdvTech brought its already successful higher education brands together to maximise the synergies. This strategy of differentiation has been most successful and has enabled each brand to grow in serving its particular student market and to contribute to the development of the institution as a whole. By focusing on the quality of the teaching and learning experience and ensuring that the curricula remain relevant to the world of work, each student is able to access a learning environment well positioned to maximise their chances of success. Close relationships with the industries we serve and professional associations in the careers supported mean that we are held accountable by the economy to produce productive graduates. We recognise that higher education is a privilege and there is thus a focus on citizenship as a value on all of our campuses and in our curricula so that our graduates are socially and economically productive. This balance is of great importance to us in this developmental state as we believe that the future of the country depends on the judicious blend of social and economic skills.

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