OP-ED

Quo vadis SA universities in a post-Covid-19 future?

By Wim De Villiers 26 August 2020

The Great Hall at University of the Witwatersrand. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

Lockdown restrictions on physical contact and large gatherings forced universities to suspend face-to-face tuition and switch to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment. This transition has generally been so successful that it is bound to have a lasting effect on what we offer to whom, and how.

What does the future look like for universities post-Covid-19? This is an all-consuming topic in higher education at present. The pandemic has plunged the sector into turmoil, forcing universities to re-examine their current situation and future plans.

On the one hand, universities’ income is under severe pressure. This is true for all five income streams – state subsidies, student fees, research contracts, philanthropic donations and commercial income. The declining economy has seen purse strings being tightened across the board.

On the other, the higher education model itself is changing. Lockdown restrictions on physical contact and large gatherings forced universities to temporarily suspend face-to-face tuition and switch to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment. And while there have been some challenges, the transition to the new teaching mode has generally been so successful that it is bound to have a lasting effect on what we offer to whom, and how.

Of course, there are positives to each of these challenges. In terms of income, financial pressures mean that universities will have to become leaner, more resourceful, less complacent and less wasteful. They will have to generate more funds on their own and put their assets to better use.

The greater use of information and communications technology (ICT) in learning and teaching, in turn, is set to both broaden and deepen education, not only through fully online learning, but also blended and hybrid modes, which combine the best of both worlds.

From the outside looking in, observers might find it baffling that universities are concerned about their future despite a rising demand for higher education. Obtaining a university qualification is still regarded as a pathway to success, a way out of poverty, and a means of securing a better life for individuals and their families. Society also needs graduates to contribute to socioeconomic development and solve people’s everyday challenges.

Indeed, all of this is true. Yet times are changing; in fact, they have changed, overnight.

Many people have lost their jobs or have had to take salary cuts. With less money available to fund studies, more young people are contemplating first getting a job and studying part-time.

Others might have gained a university qualification years ago and have been in the job market for some time, but are now forced to re-skill in light of changing circumstances. They might want to pursue new avenues and are again looking to a university to help them do so, but cannot afford to return to full-time on-campus learning.

Moreover, all students – no matter their age – increasingly navigate a digital world, where both content delivery and interaction with others occur online. They can access knowledge and, to some extent, build networks in cyberspace.

Other disrupters in the higher education landscape have been the introduction of massive open online courses (MOOCs) – although they have not quite delivered on their hyped promise – as well as a steady increase in the number of private higher education institutions.

So, what are the prospects for universities? To start with, we have to ensure that we fully optimise our core business – delivering well-qualified graduates, producing relevant research, and having a positive impact on society. Yet that does not mean we can be complacent and carry on with business as usual. Nor does it mean we must throw the baby out with the bathwater.

This has led to warnings that higher education is bound to experience the same kind of disruption as that caused in the taxi industry by Uber, and in the hotel industry by Airbnb. In a recent interview with New York Magazine, Scott Galloway, described as “a Silicon Valley runaway who has founded his own virtual classroom start-up”, predicted that the “post-pandemic future will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities”. This, Galloway said, would allow the parties to “expand enrolment dramatically by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, the affordability and value of which will seismically alter the landscape of higher education”.

So, what are the prospects for universities? To start with, we have to ensure that we fully optimise our core business – delivering well-qualified graduates, producing relevant research, and having a positive impact on society. Yet that does not mean we can be complacent and carry on with business as usual. Nor does it mean we must throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring argued in The Innovative University back in 2011 already, universities “must become much more affordable, particularly by embracing online learning technology. At the same time, though, they should make the most of their full-time professors and physical campuses, which might be misperceived as a competitive liability in a world of technological disruption. In fact, the university’s professors and face-to-face meeting spaces, while expensive, are unique and potentially invaluable.”

This was echoed in recent discussions at Stellenbosch University’s mid-year executive planning forum. My counterpart at Wits, Professor Adam Habib, was one of the panellists who joined us online for a session on the post-Covid-19 university. He rightly pointed out that a fair degree of the value of a university education was derived from what happened outside the classroom, equipping students with “soft skills” through interaction with academics and fellow students, and helping them build networks for life.

…quality is as important as quantity. We have to get the basics right, which is complicated by the fact that we are working with new mediums and modalities. This is why collaboration is key. We can achieve more if we work together and learn from one another.

Even though these elements are not easily replicable online, the participants in our forum agreed that we would have to start incorporating something similar in our e-learning offerings. As pointed out by one of the other panellists, Professor Agnes Binagwaho, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, building “communities of practice” online is feasible, as internet connectivity has broadened, and not diminished, opportunities for interaction.

Of course, that is on the assumption that one has (fast enough) internet connectivity. The digital divide continues to exclude many people and was one of the challenges South African universities had to grapple with as we pivoted online at the start of the Covid-19 crisis. We were all committed not to leave a single student behind, but a lack of devices and data stood in the way of this goal being met uniformly across all institutions. So, this issue will require attention for online learning to live up to its promise of broadening access.

Viewing it from a continental perspective, we do not have much choice. According to the United Nations, Africa already has the world’s youngest population (with a median age of 18), and approximately two thirds of the predicted population growth over the next three decades is expected to occur on our continent. Clearly, the demand for education will be enormous, but – as our Chief Operating Officer, Professor Stan du Plessis, put it – there is “no possibility” of meeting this need via the traditional route of brick-and-mortar universities.

While online education does not offer a cheaper alternative to face-to-face teaching, as technology costs are an add-on, it does offer scalability. The fact that one is able to serve many more students brings down the unit cost, which makes it more efficient and affordable. And that is the strongest case for universities in South Africa and elsewhere on our continent to expand our e-learning offering (including fully online, blended and hybrid modes) so that we can dramatically increase our developmental impact where it is needed most.

As always, however, quality is as important as quantity. We have to get the basics right, which is complicated by the fact that we are working with new mediums and modalities. This is why collaboration is key. We can achieve more if we work together and learn from one another.

There is no question that we face immense challenges in higher education. Confronting them will require an equally immense effort. It is best that we take our cue from Daniel Burnham, the American architect who helped rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871. He famously said: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir [the] blood.” DM

Professor Wim de Villiers is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University. He also serves as vice-chair of Universities South Africa (USAf) and as a board member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).

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