HIGHER LEARNING

Tertiary education academic year set to continue into 2021

By Sandisiwe Shoba 1 May 2020

(In pic - Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande addressing members of the media) media briefing by the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga and Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, 30 April 2020.

The 2020 academic year may extend into April next year. Under level 4 lockdown, universities will remain closed except to final-year medical students who will soon be allowed to return for clinical training.

The 2020 academic calendar for universities and TVET colleges is likely to extend into 2021 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Addressing the public and media during a joint briefing with the Department of Basic Education on Thursday 30 April, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said the completion of the extended 2020 academic year would align with the release of matric results. 

“The completion of the academic year 2020 and the start of the academic year 2021 will be aligned with the plans of the Department of Basic Education in terms of the completion cycle of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations, and the release of the matric results,” said Nzimande. 

He projected that the university academic programme may conclude no later than April next year but this is contingent on the progression of the virus. 

For now, institutions will remain closed for contact teaching, except final-year medical students will be allowed to return to campuses under “controlled” and “strict conditions” during Level 4 restrictions. The remaining medical students will be phased in as conditions improve.  

Remote learning interventions are being implemented until SA eases into lighter lockdown levels. 

To facilitate this strategy, the department is negotiating with mobile network operators to secure data for students across the entire post-school education and training sector (PSET). 

Nzimande urged all students to ensure that institutions had their correct cellphone numbers to streamline this process. 

Plans to physically deliver learning materials to students were punted as well as the procurement and distribution of laptops to students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

NSFAS loans will still be paid out to students throughout the phased lockdown period. 

Earlier this month, NSFAS announced that it was paying out allowances from 20 April to 376,659 university students, and 202,681 TVET college students. 

With the likely extension of the academic year, NSFAS and the department will have to do cost adjustments to ensure additional funding is available for students. 

Emergency funding for public institutions in distress is also on the table. This was already mentioned in late March, where institutions were required to fill out surveys to indicate their IT capability.

All PSET campuses will undergo deep cleaning and biosafety protocols to prepare them for the eventual return of students, said the department. 

Nzimande says the department doesn’t see these plans being finalised until June. 

National examinations for the TVET sector, which caters to more than 1.2 million students, will be rescheduled. 

“To this end, TVET colleges will have to enable students to complete trimester one and two for engineering students, both semesters for business studies and the full-year NC(V) programmes,” Nzimande explained. 

Trimester three which would have happened from August to November will be deferred to a later date (to be determined) to allow adequate time for students to prepare for exams. 

Other options are being explored beyond online learning to assist TVET students who may struggle with connectivity. 

Free access to e-guides, access to past exam papers, televised lessons and radio broadcasted lessons will be available for the next six months. 

Resources are being made accessible on the TVET colleges website

In consultation with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the Department of Health, protocols will be implemented when students return to campuses to ensure physical distancing, access to hand sanitisers and protective masks and the continual deep-cleaning of facilities. 

Staff and students will be screened and tested for Covid-19 while quarantine sites are being identified for future use. 

“We will also be providing mental health support and other forms of support necessary for staff and students throughout,” said Nzimande. 

Some institutions already began their online learning programmes on 20 April although initially, the department had communicated that learning should only begin on 4 May. 

Nzimande said he had not stopped these universities because they had the resources to begin online teaching. 

“We are constrained by the very same challenges we seek to address, poverty inequality and unemployment. The very problems we seek to solve are the obstacles standing on our way.”

The South African Students Congress (Sasco) threatened a nationwide boycott of online learning unless every student had equal access. 

In a statement released on 30 April, the organisation argued that online learning is creating a segregated academic year for the poor and the privileged.  

“We believe that our rights are equal and so are our lives, therefore if the plan by the department is to take everyone back to their residences in October 2020 then let all students be subjected to social pedagogies until that time.” 

Sasco had previously called for students to be allowed to return to residences to access devices and the internet. 

Nzimande said the department would not make “reckless decisions” because of the call for students to return to campuses. 

“Our efforts to save the academic year must avoid worsening the infection curve.” DM

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