Universities are enduring the COVID-19 pain with students; they believe in pulling through, together

As university leaders re-committed to completing the 2020 year without leaving a single student behind, a student shared the pain of having to access lectures from a screen watched from a packed two-roomed home on the outskirts of Durban. This, in a nutshell, describes some of the views shared at last week's webinar that was titled The Impact of Universities' COVID-19 Response on Different Student Groups.

Close to 250 delegates signed into the webinar co-hosted by Universities South Africa (USAf) and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) on 22 June. The event marked the start of an official partnership between the HSRC and USAf, aimed at delivering a series of webinars on matters of societal interest from time to time.

Professor Crain Soudien, CEO of the HSRC, who chaired the discussion, said the topic was "of massive interest to everyone in the country. We have almost 900 000 students in the university sector who are affected by what's going on and it's important we have a good sense of how we are responding to the needs of our students".

Learn and devise new modes of teaching and learning

Siphesihle Msomi
Universities must learn to expect disease outbreaks from time to time and adapt to new modes of teaching and learning -- Siphesihle Msomi, a medical student and Student Leader at Walter Sisulu University, advises.

Siphesihle Msomi, a medical student at Walter Sisulu University, said while this pandemic has potential to annihilate education, higher education leaders should also recognise it as an opportunity to learn and evolve with the times.

A Premier of the Mthatha campus and President of the Institutional Student Representative Council (ISRC), Msomi said the trajectory of epidemics witnessed around the world since 2003 bore solid evidence that pandemics were becoming a recurring phenomenon. "We must therefore learn to anticipate outbreaks and adapt and employ new modes of teaching and learning."

Universities must learn to expect disease outbreaks from time to time and adapt to new modes of teaching and learning -- Siphesihle Msomi, a medical student and Student Leader at Walter Sisulu University, advises.

Do away with academic exclusions

Underlining that COVID-19 was not of student doing, and that neither students nor universities could be blamed for it, Msomi appealed to universities to adopt the principle of no academic exclusions -- sector-wide. He also implored the institutions still upholding the exclusion policy to abandon it, if the widely-promoted "Save-the-academic-year; save lives and the no-student-should-be-left-behind" adages are to be given effect.

Devices are not fool proof; rather invite vulnerable students back

Msomi suggested that instead of looking for funding to purchase devices for needy students, institutions should consider "calling the disadvantaged students back; prepare your campuses to enable learning under strict regulations." He added that institutions would do well to re-focus their energy and resources on supporting especially poor students, the disabled, mentally challenged and international students, whom he said had been hit the hardest by the transition from contact to online learning.

"When students are on campus, the question of connectivity is mitigated because on campus, there is network. No student will say 'I do not have a laptop'," he added, because the computer labs would be open.

In response to Msomi's suggestion, questions arose from the virtual audience, some of whom asked on the chat platform, how institutions would manage social distancing if large numbers of students were invited back on campuses.

In conclusion, Msomi said conversations on the COVID-19 experience should not be limited to the negative impacts. One positive outcome of the pandemic, he noted, was that many students had learned to adapt to online learning and familiarised themselves with the Zoom platform for video-conferencing.

It is about survival of the fittest

Thobani Zikalala, the second student who participated in the webinar, is an activist and political science graduate from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He said he had effectively been a UKZN student until the COVID-19 crisis. Zikalala is one of the students who went on a protracted protest in the first quarter of 2020 at UKZN, when the university required them to pay a minimum of 15% of their historic debt upfront, in order to register for the year.

Facing financial exclusion, Zikalala says when he was eventually given the go-ahead to register, COVID-19 had landed in South Africa. Campuses were already being shut and evacuated. Three months later he has still not been able to register for his honours degree. He expressed a belief that COVID-19 has exacerbated the "exclusion of those of us who are called professional students." He said such students stood in the region of 2000 at UKZN.

"COVID-19 has exacerbated the exclusion of those of us who are called professional students," said Thobani Zikalala, an aspiring honours student at UKZN.
Thobani Zikalala
COVID-19 has exacerbated the exclusion of those of us who are called professional students," said Thobani Zikalala, an aspiring honours student at UKZN.

Turning to the remote learning that students were now being confronted with, Zikalala accused universities of becoming corporate entities - totally out of touch with the nature of students they are reaching out to. He said the decision to complete the 2020 academic year through remote teaching seemed to have been formulated from places of comfort such as Umhlanga Rocks, in Durban, for a privileged cohort of students. He said he wondered whether institutions had thought about the student in Cato Manor, KwaMashu, Doornkop and other areas where internet connectivity is a problem.

Using his own home environment as an example, Zikalala said: "They transfer the university classroom to our homes, but they do not ask about the structure of our homes... my home is not like in Umhlanga Rocks, where I have a spare room, where I have a helper at home and I don't have the responsibility of household chores.

"My home is where eight of us share a two-roomed structure. When you say you are moving the classroom into that space, what are you saying about my academic career? You're saying I must study in the space where, while in a Zoom class, I must rush outside to go and collect water... This is the reality of the South African student -- especially the poor, black majority."

His reading of the on-going remote teaching was that "universities are saying those who can connect, must connect. To those of you who can't connect, we will see how we save you when you come back." According to him, this was about survival of the fittest.

semi-rural / township settlement
Many students have had to create study spaces in crowded homes in townships and rural villages -- often without utilities.

Universities will re-open for high-intensity teaching - Bawa reassures

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf
Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf.

Opening up the discussion platform - Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said "We are serious about our resolve to ensure that no student is left behind. What institutions are engaging in, is emergency teaching. We need to re-open universities to allow high-intensity teaching to accommodate those students who were not able to learn online."

He said the principle to not leave any student behind had been adopted precisely with the vulnerable students behind. "We really have to foreground the social justice framework. It is not possible for us to base social justice on the fact that 60% of students can finish the year.'' Prof Bawa assured Zikalala that even if 99% of the students were successfully learning online, universities would still find ways to accommodate the 1%.

Universities are wide awake to inequalities in the system

Prof Bawa said the move to online learning - and he acknowledged he was using the term glibly - had proven to be a serious stress test for universities across the sector. "It has really torn apart the fabric of society, and of course, the university as a cosmos of society." Prof Bawa said online learning had "heightened the inequalities in our society," adding that the inequalities were both within and between institutions. That is why institutions, across the board, had made various concessions according to their unique contexts, to accommodate students and to enable them to succeed, regardless of their circumstances.

Following the early mid-term recess of March to April, universities, through USAf, had agreed to resume remote emergency teaching from 20 April. However, the University of Pretoria moved its start-date to 4 May to allow delivery of the university-purchased laptops to their identified needy students. This is according to Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, in his presentation at the webinar. Even by 4 May, not every student who needed a laptop had received one "because there was considerable to and fro in identifying the students, signing the loan form and then the post office delivering", Prof Kupe said.

Furthermore, when students were advised to evacuate residences and go on an early break in March, many had departed hurriedly, leaving their own learning devices - and even text books - behind. At UP, enabling remote learning had, in fact, included retrieving laptops from students' residences and couriering them to the owners' homes - wherever they are. [This bit, Prof Kupe did not mention at the HSRC-USAf webinar. He had shared the information at a different Zoom event.]

Where a laptop was proven to not be enough - due to connectivity issues - UP had couriered study materials and facilitated remote learning through donor-funded telephonic tutoring. All of this was done to make sure that nobody got left behind. Still, the remote teaching did not proceed as smoothly as UP had anticipated. More is shared in this regard in Part Two of this report.

Professor Tawana Kupe
Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria.

Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University (RU), said from the outset they were aware of "debilitating poverty, deprivation and inequality" and how this would impact remote course delivery.

Committed to the principle of social justice, RU had placed a moratorium on:

Dr Sizwe Mabizela
Students have their own fair share of responsibility for success in pulling through this crisis, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, said.

He also pointed out that succeeding in online learning depended on a lot more than just provision of laptops and data. He said students needed self-discipline, a sense of purpose and well developed time-management skills to participate productively in remote learning. "In short, a student must be able to take full responsibility for their learning," he said.

We explore more of Dr Mabizela's input on digital learning in Part II of this report, to be published tomorrow.

Students have their own fair share of responsibility for success in pulling through this crisis, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, said.

A global study highlights "poor students" in SA responses

Between April and May 2020, Professor Thierry Luescher, Research Director at the HSRC, developed and conducted a survey with academics from Germany, the US and the United Arab Emirates on the impact of COVID-19 on student affairs.

The survey took the form of an online questionnaire for student affairs practitioners - who deal with student accommodation, residences, and their catering, health care, counselling and financial aid.

With about 59 questions, the survey attracted 922 responses from 70 countries including 13 in Africa.

Prof Luescher created a word cloud to show the most frequently used words in South African responses to the question whether certain kinds of students were more affected by the pandemic and why.

"Poor students" came up the most, followed by "no electronic devices" and "rural areas".

Whereas many universities in other parts of the world had refunded students for costs such as student housing, tuition and other fees including parking, in South Africa, universities had helped significantly more with facilitating emergency online teaching and learning.

South African universities appeared to have provided more relief to poor students than typically seen globally. This relief was evident in universities' provision of transport money to students; providing increased internet bandwidth; procuring laptops and other learning devices for needy students; providing data and negotiating reduced data costs.

The global student services survey showed that ,when a student is residential at the university , he or she enjoys ICT access through free wifi and the computers infrastructure. A student also occupies residential space provided by the university, and a combination of these facilitates blended and online learning. However, when learning is provided remotely, universities cannot remedy the challenges of social space and network infrastructure. These become the concerns, on the one hand, of individual households and their socio-economic context, and of infrastructure providers such as government, state-owned entities and the private sector, on the other hand.

What the global data revealed was that:

When inviting students back, prioritise the vulnerable cohort

"What one can do so long is to prioritise the reopening of residences for the student groups most difficult to reach and those who are the most disadvantaged by remote online learning," Prof Luescher said.

Dr Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and Student Affairs at Rhodes University, agreed, on the chat platform, that the students proven to have been most disadvantaged in online learning should be prioritised when re-opening campuses.

Prof Luescher disputed Zikalala's claim that universities have no idea of the socio-economic demographic of their students, adding that the truth lay somewhere in the middle.

Professor Thierry Luescher, Research Director at the HSRC, who led the South Africa leg of the global survey on universities' student affairs services.
Professor Thierry Luescher
Professor Thierry Luescher, Research Director at the HSRC, who led the South Africa leg of the global survey on universities' student affairs services.

In response to the students' concern raised on academic exclusion, Prof Kupe of the University of Pretoria said the concern was legitimate. UP was going to look at how assessments had been carried out and how individual students had experienced them. The university would not use academic exclusion as a blanket tool.

From Rhodes University, Dr Mabizela said this emergency online learning was like "fixing a ship in the middle of a storm. We need to work together - creatively and imaginatively -- to get through this pandemic."

From the chat platform, a webinar participant said while universities discuss lessening the impact of online learning on students, they must also spare a thought to the teaching staff who live on the margins of society, and are expected to deliver quality teaching in conditions not dissimilar to those of students. A few participants also expressed disappointment at the limited student participation. They said they had expected to hear more student inputs.

In Part Two, tomorrow, we will report on this webinar's exploration of online learning, from the university leaders' points of view.

Co-written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa and 'Mateboho Green, Manager: Corporate Communication at USAf.

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