Saving the academic year: five critical points on education

25 June 2020 - 12:44 By Cebelihle Bhengu
The reopening of the University of Fort Hare has not started, according to the SA Union of Students' Meshack Mugabe.
The reopening of the University of Fort Hare has not started, according to the SA Union of Students' Meshack Mugabe.
Image: Rod Bally

*Ed's note: This article has been updated to reflect CUT's right of reply to the submissions.

A virtual briefing made to the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education, science & technology on Wednesday outlined plans to save the 2020 academic year.

SA Union of Students (SAUS), Universities SA (Usaf) and the SA Further Education and Training Students Association (Safetsa) also outlined their Covid-19 readiness and challenges they faced.

Here are five important takeaways from the briefing:

Department of higher education - Diane Parker on saving the academic year and fees

The deputy director-general in the department of higher education, Diane Parker, said if 100% of students returned to campuses by September, the academic year would conclude in April 2021.

Parker said this would be the “worst case scenario” as universities are looking at wrapping up in mid-March. 

Parker also added that there is a proposal not to increase tuition and student accommodation fees, as the 2020 academic year will spill over to the 2021 academic year.

She said there had been no final decision about student accommodation.

“We are making a proposal for a national framework which is being discussed with Usaf and the private housing associations to ensure that we can find a way to deal with some of the financial pressure linked to the process. We agree that the fee for the academic year or accommodation should stay the same.”

Aruna Singh - deputy director of TVET Colleges

Staff in engineering studies, business studies and NC (V) levels 2, 3 and 4 reopened on June 8 and students are returning to colleges in a staggered fashion.

  • Engineering students returned to campus between June 10 and June 22;  
  • semester 1 business studies return between June 25 and July 6; and
  • NC (V) students return between July 13 and July 27.

Singh said the 2020 academic year would spill over into 2021.

She said most campuses have indicated that they are Covid-19 compliant. The readiness checklist included occupational health protocols and provision of quarantine and self-isolation sites should they be needed by students or staff.

“The national coverage in all categories is 97% or above. About 60% of all colleges have scored 100% in all categories.”

Bheki Mahlobo, DG for Community Education and Training (CET)

Mahlobo said institutions began preparations between May 23 and May 27 by fumigating and cleaning campuses, training staff on understanding and managing Covid-19 and identification of quarantine facilities.

By May 29, centres were not ready and had to intensify programmes to ensure national readiness. Mahlobo said an average of 89.2% of centres were ready to reopen as of mid-June. 

Misheck Mugabe - SAUS on lack of consultations by some institutions 

Mugabe made presentations based on submissions by SRC leadership from 26 universities. He told the committee that students at three universities, including Central University of Technology and Unisa, have not been consulted by the institutions about the phased reopening of campuses, as outlined by higher education minister Blade Nzimande two weeks ago.

Mugabe said Walter Sisulu University and University of Fort Hare have not started with the phased reopening and have not issued permits to students who need to travel long distances.

He said students from Mangosuthu University of Technology and University of Mpumalanga have not received data, while universities including Unisa, University of Fort Hare and Cape Peninsula University of Technology have not provided students with laptops.

CUT spokesperson Dan Maritz disputed Mugabe's report.

"Management and the SRC have been in constant discussions regarding the phased reopening of the Bloemfontein and Welkom campuses. The last meeting held with SRC was on 8 June 2020 where the SRC represented concerns regarding the revised teaching and learning plan."

Simphiwe Khumalo - TVET Colleges on e-learning challenges

Khumalo said the Covid-19 pandemic worsened inequality between advantaged and disadvantaged students. This as some students have been unable to catch up with lessons because of connectivity issues.

Khumalo said students from the rural areas had difficulty with internet connectivity while students in suburbs or urban areas did not experience these issues. 

“E-learning posed unfair discrimination between those who stay in the suburbs with high network reception and those in rural places with low network reception. E-learning can only be effective once the inequalities among the students are addressed.”