Academic year likely to spill over into 2021: higher education ministry

21 April 2020 - 19:24 By ANDISIWE MAKINANA
Higher education minister Blade Nzimande's department updated parliament on Tuesday on its plans to get the 2020 academic year under way.
Higher education minister Blade Nzimande's department updated parliament on Tuesday on its plans to get the 2020 academic year under way.
Image: Sunday Times/Esa Alexander

The higher education and training department has told parliament that a reorganisation of the 2020 academic year is essential, possibly into 2021.

And this will mean more financial implications for the state.

“What we have recognised is that given the time that has already been lost, there has to be a reorganisation of the academic year, and it's possible that the end of the academic year would extend into the beginning of 2021,” said Diane Parker, the deputy director-general responsible for university education.

“That really depends on the information we get from the experts and our discussions with the department of basic education.”

She was addressing a meeting of parliament's portfolio committee on higher education and on how Covid-19 has affected the tertiary education sector — including plans to save the academic year.

Parker said universities were planning to resume teaching and learning primarily through online and remote methodologies from May 4. Some institutions have already started and others are in an orientation period.

While the department has pencilled in July 1 as the first possible date for students to return to campuses, Parker said there is an agreement that face-to-face campus activity should not happen until the peak of the virus is over. When this is will be determined by scientific advice and government prescripts and regulations.

“It will totally depend on the issues that arise as the trajectory of the pandemic unfolds. In the meantime, we need to have a phased-in resumption of campus activity. Each institution is looking at which types of teaching and learning need to be phased in first and how we would manage that,” she said.

MPs heard that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) continues to pay students their allowances during this period, but that it recognised that with the extension of the academic year there may be a need to support students for additional months, possibly into the first quarter of 2021.

“That may be financial implications that we have got to understand and that modelling must take place,” said Parker.

She said there were also having discussions with the department of basic education to align the academic year for higher education with the basic education's school year.

“This is going to be very important for us to think about in the different scenarios under consideration. We are going to have to work very closely to ensure that we've got alignment,” she said.

Among the concerns raised by universities in relation to the lockdown restrictions were the large-scale infrastructure programmes that are under way on a number of campuses. They all had to stop work when the lockdown was announced and institutions want the work to commence — particularly given the costs that are being incurred for delay, said Parker.

MPs registered concerns about students who may not have the technology and other resources needed to access online lessons. They also demanded that the department assist those students who may not have appropriate learning spaces at home.

This was covered, according to Parker, as universities have committed to leaving no student behind by making sure that learning material and support are available.

Universities were also producing different types of learning material, including print material and USB dongles for cases where students are not able to access online materials.

Parker said the provision of loans for students getting those devices was happening. This is linked to work that each institution is doing in understanding what kind of methodology it will use. It also includes identifying students that require support and what kind of support.

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande said they were in talks with telecommunication companies to look at zero-rating for educational websites and reducing the price of data bundles.

Nzimande said they were also assessing online capacity in the system, to understand “who of our students have got access to what gadgets”.

Nzimande noted that only 20% of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges can afford online education.