Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update
A year after CoVID-19 landed on our shores, its effects still linger, and to no less a measure in the higher education sector. Executing Work Integrated Learning (WIL) programmes post the hard Level 5 lockdown of 2020 has become particularly challenging.
WIL is a vital prerequisite for graduation in many programmes of higher education. It is practised in various models, such as simulated learning, work-directed theoretical learning, problem-based learning, project-based learning, and workplace-based learning. WIL works as a lever to improve students' readiness for the workplace, and all 26 public universities have incorporated one modality of WIL or another in their programme modules.
Taking cognisance of the challenges posed by the pandemic to WIL, Universities South Africa's World of Work Strategy Group (WSG), in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education, the Department of Higher Education and Training embarked on a study to determine the impact on students and universities involved with WIL. Although the team set out to scan the environment at all 26 public universities to determine the impact of CoVID-19 on students and universities involved with WIL, analysis was done for 13 universities that had provided sufficient data.
It emerged from that analysis that a total of 73 159 students were enrolled in programmes with a WIL component. Of that number, 24 055 were in their final year.
Of the five most dominant modalities of WIL, the workplace-based learning (WBL) programmes was hardest hit, mainly because it requires students to be placed in actual, established organisations. At the end of the hard (Level 5) lockdown in 2020, many suitable employers were either closed or had been compelled to reduce their workforce. This meant that fewer employers and fewer WBL opportunities were available, and less time was afforded the WBL than programmes required. Universities therefore had to devise other means to make up for time lost in this fashion so that students' graduation and their registration with professional bodies would not be negatively affected.
Furthermore, lockdown restrictions reduced the number of employees, staff and students who could be at work premises at any given time. This meant that the mentoring, supervision and assessment that ought to be afforded students placed in such programmes became compromised. Therefore, alternative methods had to be devised so that students, especially those in their final year, could graduate.
In addition to the 24 055 final-year students, 49 104 other students were affected by the challenges mentioned above. This added the urgency to find WBL solutions for the final-year students, so as to prevent a bottleneck forming for students needing to be placed for their final year in 2021. The negative effects on the monitoring, mentoring and assessment of students necessitated that alternative methods be considered to satisfy WBL requirements in such a way that quality was not compromised.
The findings of this study led to the formulation of guidelines with recommendations for universities' support. USAf has since distributed these guidelines to all its member institutions.
One suggestion made in mitigation of the adverse effects on the monitoring, mentoring and assessment of students is to turn to the other modalities of WIL innovatively (as long as the alternative modality remains workplace orientated in nature) to achieve the outcomes set for WBL. To address the challenge of time lost to WBL, post-Level 5 lockdown, a recommendation was made for universities to review their credit allocation in relation to the notional hours associated with each modality. One option could be to shorten the WBL period from six to four months, as long as all the outcomes of that modality are achieved within the shortened time, and that there is room for sufficient repetition, should that be necessary.
Whatever decisions universities make in this context, they are advised to carefully consider the role of professional bodies in relation to their requirements for WBL and professional registration. Negotiations with some professional bodies yielded some concessions recognising the limitations imposed by CoVID-19. However, engagements with a number of these bodies showed that only some, not all professional bodies are amenable to the use of alternative modalities for WBL.
At the first gathering of the WSG in 2021, in February, Dr Henri Jacobs, Director: Work Integrated Learning and Industry Liaison at the Central University of Technology Free State, who happens to be the Chairperson of the Learning in Practice Community of Practice within the WSG, told the Group that feedback received from universities was positive as the guidelines were providing much-needed direction.
Dr Jacobs said these recommendations are to be applied temporarily, while the nation battles with the pandemic. In drawing these recommendations, the team strove to ensure that the quality of WIL is not compromised, even with the possible move to alternative modalities to WBL. That is why every guideline is accompanied by conditions to satisfy in considering that specific guideline. The full set of guidelines may be accessed here
The WSG is one of five strategy groups of USAf's. The purpose of the WSG is to advise the USAf Board and the member institutions on changes and trends in the world of work and its impact on the mandate and the obligations of the Higher Education sector.
As at March 2021, the full membership of the WSG is constituted as follows:
WSG's priorities in 2021 are outlined as follows:
Another on-going project of the WSG is a study titled: 'New Modalities for Learning at the Theory Practice Nexus.' It seeks to explore international best practice in preparing students for work. Findings thereof will be shared once the study is completed.
The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities SA.
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