Coronavirus & education
NSFAS students still wait for laptops months into lockdown, while campus life slowly resumes
Briefing the nation on the latest Covid-19 measures for the Post-School sector, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande indicated that an ongoing tender process meant NSFAS students in need still hadn’t received laptops despite universities’ closing in March.
Since promising laptops to students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) during a briefing in June 2020, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced on Wednesday that the tender to procure and distribute these devices has still not been finalised.
“Because of government processes, the tender was advertised on 26 June with a closing date of 31 July,” said Nzimande while briefing the nation on the department’s latest Covid-19 measures for the post-school education and training sector.
He expects that the tender award and contracting will be completed by 15 August.
Nzimande urged students who had not received their devices to be “patient”, saying progress is being made. Institutions closed their doors on contact teaching on 18 March.
There are 334,868 students registered under NSFAS, according to figures from April 2020. Nzimande said institutions must provide the department with a list of NSFAS students in need of a laptop.
In many instances, universities were able to buy laptops out of pocket or through donations. Wits University, for example, lent 5,000 laptops to a range of students including those under NSFAS, “the missing middle” and students on scholarship/bursary. Other institutions have struggled.
Nzimande estimates that more than 65% of universities are in “different stages of procuring laptops”.
The South African Students Congress (Sasco) noted with concern the slow progress made in delivering laptops and data to disadvantaged students. In a statement released earlier this week, it said:
“This has resulted in many students being unable to submit their assignments and other academic projects including virtual teaching and learning.”
As some students wait for devices, others are being allowed back on campuses under lockdown Level 3. As previously reported, a third of students are returning to campuses under the department’s phased return to contact teaching and learning.
Under Level 4, final-year medical students were allowed to go back to campus to do their clinical training between 11 May and 20 June.
Nzimande outlined the Gazetted directions published on 8 June allowing these students to return under level 3:
- Students in the final year of their programmes, who are on a path to graduating in 2020;
- Students in all years of study that require clinical training in their programmes (provided that the campus and the clinical training platforms are prepared and have sufficient space to accommodate them within the corresponding risk level maximum carrying capacity and any while adhering to the safety protocols); and
- Postgraduate students who require laboratory equipment and other technical equipment to undertake their studies.
“Students who are not supposed to go back — we urge them not to try and return to campuses because by doing so, they are undermining our management and the fight against Covid-19,” pleaded Nzimande.
The University of Cape Town announced it would allow students to return to campus by “invitation” only. Those not invited will continue working or studying remotely.
“Those who have been invited to return will all be required to follow stringent hygiene and physical distancing rules,” said Chief Operating Officer Reno Morar in a statement released on 8 July.
Nzimande explained that institutions had individualised plans for when and whom would go back to campuses.
“The 33% will be staggered,” said Nzimande, adding that this group of students should be reintegrated by late August.
So far 23 universities have allowed students back into residences.
Under Level 3, all students except those in the National Vocational Certificate programmes (NCV) are allowed to return. From 13 July, students in NCV level 4 may go back, followed by level 3 on 20 July and level 2 on 27 July.
During a meeting between the parliamentary committee for higher education, science and technology and student unions on 25 June, it was revealed that TVET students were especially struggling during the lockdown.
Siphiwe Khumalo, from the South African Further Education and Training Student Association, told the committee that “most students’ family income had dried up during lockdown, as most of their parents are informal traders” leaving students without funds to pay for accommodation and now “ruthless landlords are refusing to give students their belongings”, wrote Daily Maverick’s Karabo Mafolo.
In terms of zero-rated websites and data bundles, the department procured 10GB daytime data and 20GB night-time data for three months starting from 1 June 2020 for NSFAS and Funza Lushaka students. Of roughly 592 learning sites, approximately 96% are available free, said Nzimande.
He expressed disappointment that some students had been using the data bundles for “private use” such as downloading movies and “disturbing, undesirable content”.
Community Education and Training (CET)
Under lockdown Level 3, the former “adult basic education centres” were reopened on 23 June. The minister said 133,000 students (a portion of CET learners) were expected to return, but the sector experienced a low return rate “…mainly due to anxieties or fear of exposure to Covid-19”, Nzimande explained.
He said the low return rate was also affected by the closure of 312 of the 1,810 centres due to non-compliance with Covid-19 regulations for operation.
Infections have been recorded at some colleges in the North West, Western Cape, Free State and Gauteng. He said the sector could not cope with the full return of all students at this stage:
“Our community colleges are in a far riskier situation than our universities and colleges.”
For now, it’s certain that the 2020 academic year will be completed only in the early part of 2021. In a previous briefing, Nzimande said it may be at the latest April 2021, depending on the trajectory of the pandemic.
The department is liaising with the Department of Basic Education on its plans to conclude the primary and secondary school year.
Nzimande said it is likely that the 2021 academic year will also be revised to ensure the syllabus does not spill over into 2022.
“Unless we commit to not wasting the academic year, the future of thousands of kids will be at stake.” DM
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