HIGHER EDUCATION

Government’s plan to save the tertiary academic year

By Sandisiwe Shoba 15 May 2020

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. (Photos: GCIS)

As restrictions ease up, more and more students will be allowed to return to campuses. For now, final-year medical students are resuming clinical training and by Level 1 all university students will be back for blended learning. TVET students are set to return in either June or July.

The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation has emphasised a dual agenda to both save the academic year and save lives in response to the Covid-19 threat.

During a presentation to Parliament on Thursday 14 May, the department outlined that from 1 June, all institutions would be offering forms of remote “multimodal” flexible teaching and learning. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande had already announced this in a recent briefing.

Some elite universities like Wits and the University of Cape Town (UCT) had already begun online teaching from 20 April even though the department had marked 4 May as the initial date for the academic programme to resume online.

With universities currently closed for contact teaching, the department has lengthened the academic year, which is set to end by, at the latest, April 2021 depending on the trajectory of the pandemic.

According to Diane Parker, the deputy director-general for university education, the department is adopting a “phased-in approach” to students returning to campuses. Under Level 4 of the lockdown, final-year medical students have been allowed to return to campuses for clinical training from 11 May, under “strictly controlled conditions”.

Despite this date having passed, Parker says Nzimande still needs to publish directions allowing final-year medical students to travel between 11 May and 31 May.

Under levels 3 and 2, more undergraduate and postgraduate students will be allowed to return, based on criteria that Parker says are still being ironed out but may include students who need to do laboratory work or require specialised equipment.

“During Level 3 we would possibly bring back a third of the students, and then in Level 2 we would move up to about 66%. In Level 1 all students would return,” said Parker.

With the full return of students under Level 1, there would be a further 27 weeks of contact teaching planned to accommodate students who were disadvantaged by the online learning programme.

Health precautions such as the screening and testing of students and staff and rigorous cleaning of campuses and residences would also have to be undertaken. Additionally, quarantine facilities would need to be made available on campuses.

Nzimande had previously announced a number of measures the government would undertake to ensure students weren’t hindered from accessing learning materials.

These include the issuing of laptops to NSFAS students, negotiating with mobile network operators to secure data for students across the entire post-school education and training sector (PSET) and plans to physically deliver learning materials to students where necessary.

The department issued a survey in late March to gauge universities’ readiness to deliver remote teaching. Results found that 12 institutions had responsive plans, four institutions required some support, while 10 institutions needed “intensive support”. The names of these universities were not shared.

A second survey identified four specific areas of support:

  • Devices, data and connectivity for students and staff;
  • Implementation of alternative flexible teaching and learning modalities;
  • The phased-in return of students and staff and campus readiness; and
  • Financial sustainability into the future.

Students at TVET colleges will return to campuses in either the first week of June or July. If students return in June, Trimester 3 will shift to 2021, but if students return in July, Trimester 3 will not be possible and they may not complete Trimester 2.

The acting deputy director-general for TVET education, Aruna Singh, said the sector had decided that students will only resume contact teaching through a phased-in approach once SA reached lockdown Level 3.

“From the president’s announcement [on Wednesday] night, we got the sense that we are moving towards lockdown three around the end of May. That is in line with what we had been anticipating. But he cautioned that in some provinces lockdown level four may remain,” said Singh.

She emphasised that this will, of course, have an impact on whether students return to colleges in those areas.

During May, colleges will be deep-cleaned and preparations for screening, testing will be finalised.

The South African Congress of Students (Sasco) and SRCs around the country have voiced concerns that remote learning will especially disadvantage students at TVET colleges.

The organisation had threatened to boycott the online learning programme unless the government could guarantee that no student is left behind.

Singh said the department cannot provide devices to all students at TVET colleges but investment in multimodal teaching includes the use of textbooks, bulk text messages and WhatsApps, free resources from publishers, TV and radio broadcasts, access to past exam papers and zero-rated websites. DM

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