Maverick Citizen


Academics reject claims that 2020 has been a success for universities

Academics reject claims that 2020 has been a success for universities
Academics have disputed university management claims of 2020 being a success in spite of the Covid-19 lockdown and remote learning. (Photo: Gallo Images)

More than 300 academics have co-signed a statement challenging the university management narrative that 2020 has been a success. They have accused management of being blind to the damage wrought by the Covid-19 lockdown measures, saying onlining will have terrible consequences for tertiary education.

“We worry about university managements’ blindness to the losses of this year, especially as they plan for teaching after the pandemic, and for the future of university education,” reads the statement.

The academics say that this year has been marked by loss: of student and lecturer interaction, as well as interaction between students in lecture halls and on campus. The statement says the lack of contact has hindered students’ critical thinking development and that they had noted a higher than usual drop-out rate in the second semester.

They say that while it may appear that students’ marks have improved, it is an inaccurate representation of the quality of education students have received. They say that the increase in marks is because they have had to make adjustments such as marking more leniently and reducing the number of assessments and tests from the norm.

The academics also say that having had to rely on online learning tools such as WhatsApp voice notes has been difficult, with many students without access to data, WiFi or computers while at home. 

They say they are concerned that university management might decide to take learning online permanently, based purely on the “improvement” in results and cost-savings, disregarding the value of a well-rounded campus experience. 

We publish the statement below:

2020 was not a ‘success’ at our universities

A national statement from lecturers at South African universities

As lecturers and academics at many universities in South Africa, we note with concern the recent public statements from our university managements, and from the Department of Higher Education and Training, that describe the 2020 academic year as a “success”. We are particularly concerned about the idea that online learning has been successful because average marks have gone up from previous years. We have been at the coalface of teaching and marking at universities across the country. We have a very different sense of what happened to university education during lockdown. 

The focus on marks and pass rates as the measure of successful education is a worrying trend. University managers of our national education system are increasingly concerned with certification and the numbers of graduates fast-tracked through universities, rather than on the quality and substance of the education itself. Few of us have been consulted in any meaningful way about our experiences of going online. The substance of the teaching experience itself – the quality of lectures and tutorials, our engagements with students, students’ engagements with each other, the development of students’ critical capacities – have not seemed to matter much to university managements presiding over the 2020 academic year.

In contrast to what has been published about the “success” of 2020, our experience of this year was mainly of loss. Closing campuses may have been necessary to fight the pandemic, but in the rush to online teaching, we lost important face-to-face engagement with our students. Even as our classes are often too big to have the kind of classroom interactions we would like to have with our students, the loss of discussion in lecture rooms, after classes, in offices and on campuses, reduced the quality of university education dramatically.

Much of what students learn at university does not come from lecture content, but from ongoing interactions with lecturers and tutors, in seminars and workshops, and with the many different people and settings that shape campus life. Often the best ideas come from the crossing of different kinds of information, different disciplines, and people from different backgrounds. Campuses are very important public places to nurture these crossings, and the generations of young people who benefit from them with critical skills.

Campus life creates encounters – with other students, with ideas from different times and places, with a range of pedagogical methods and relationships – that are crucial to the creation of democratic values, and indeed to democracy itself. Online learning radically diminished the experimentation with ideas, the critical peer-to-peer learning environments that happen in tutorials, in cohort-relationships, in student societies and campus politics. It also diminishes the possibility of us learning from our students’ lives and questions, an experience that always deepens and extends our teaching and our thinking. Moving online narrows and limits the scope of education – and its worth.

While we did our best in a difficult situation, we are not happy with the education our students received this year. On the books, marks may have improved and more students passed courses. But there are many reasons for this improvement that do not signal an improvement in education: students were given more than usual opportunities to submit work, we often reduced the number of assessments required to pass, and we tended to mark more leniently on account of the crises in student life that were caused by the pandemic.

The marks that students received this year cannot be used as a benchmark for past or future years. Academics have worked hard to preserve the integrity of the academic year under enormous pressure, but we found ourselves in compromised positions as educators.

Consider, for example, what it means to have had to teach a course on the colonial history of race, or constitutional law, entirely via WhatsApp voice notes – because students didn’t have data or computer access to be able to receive the information any other way.

Consider postgraduate students not being able to browse library shelves to expand their knowledge of a research area, or conduct field research.

Consider what it means for a LGBTI+ student who comes from a homophobic or transphobic family to have to study gender theory, trapped in the household that rejects them. The freedom to experiment that campuses afford was closed off to students this year.

If the home is the primary learning environment for students, the effects of segregated and unequal neighbourhoods directly condition students’ learning experiences. While some universities gave data to students, and loaned them laptops, this only accounts for some of the issues that students face when needing to study at home.

We need to be aware of what “home” is, and how much that varies. For some, this means being able to finish assignments in a safe comfortable environment, but many students do not have that luxury. Many students are working without stable internet, network connection, or electricity, without a quiet space to study, with increased duties in the household when they are home, within cramped spaces, and without academic or personal support.

These conditions impact mental health and academic performance. So too our own lack of access to the public spaces, services and routines of the university meant that we became the frontline support for students dealing with all manner of questions and crises at all hours of the day and night. We lost precious research time with this overload of other duties. 

We worry about university managements’ blindness to the losses of this year, especially as they plan for teaching after the pandemic, and for the future of university education. If they are allowed to call 2020 a “success”, what will follow is an argument for more online education, for a reduction in costly investments in classrooms and campus infrastructure, such as student residences, and for the importance of certification and numbers over the quality of our teaching.

This will strengthen the anti-democratic managerialism that has already crept across campuses in the past decade. Our experience of this year was that online platforms only allowed us to engage in limited, crisis-oriented ways, and with a fraction of our students participating meaningfully in our courses. Many of us also noticed a higher drop-out rate in our classes in the second semester, a sign that the relationships that sustain classrooms were unravelling. The statistics on higher education show that Unisa, South Africa’s distance education university, has drop-out rates much higher than campus-based university education. 

As we look ahead to a future after this crisis, the lesson that we take from 2020 is that onlining will have terrible consequences for tertiary education. We undertake to resist the rush to online teaching, and to continue to work towards quality higher education in South Africa. We call on students and academics to engage in these important debates and struggles as we together define the future of our universities. DM

  1. Dr Toyin Ajao (UP),
  2.  Prof Kate Alexander (UJ),
  3.  Prof Stephanie Allais (Wits),
  4.  Mr Monas Allotey (Wits),
  5.  Prof Fiona Anciano (UWC),
  6.  Dr Kate Angier (School of Education,
  7.  UCT),
  8.  Prof Sally Archibald (Wits),
  9.  Prof Neil Armitage (UCT),
  10.  Prof Azeem Badroodien (UCT),
  11.  Dr Nwabisa Bangeni (SU),
  12.  Dr Gilles Baro (Wits),
  13.  Ms Jenna Bass (CPUT),
  14.  Prof Jane Battersby (UCT),
  15.  Prof Kasturi Behari-Leak (UCT),
  16.  Dr Koni Benson (UWC),
  17.  Prof Asanda Benya (UCT),
  18.  Ms Shaida Bobat (UKZN),
  19.  Dr Pia Bombardella (NWU),
  20.  Prof Patrick Bond (UWC),
  21.  Prof Debby Bonnin (UP),
  22.  Prof Floretta Boonzaier (UCT),
  23.  Prof Barbara Boswell (UCT),
  24.  Prof Jill Bradbury (Wits),
  25.  Mr Stefan Britz (UCT),
  26.  Prof Karin Brodie (Wits),
  27.  Dr Chris Broodryk (UP),
  28.  Prof Julian Brown (Wits),
  29.  Prof Molly Brown (UP),
  30.  Prof Peter Bruyns (UCT),
  31.  Prof Andy Buffler (UCT),
  32.  Ms Gabrielle Burns (NWU),
  33.  Prof Justine Burns (UCT),
  34.  Prof Sue Burton (RU),
  35.  Ms Lindsay Bush (DUT),
  36.  Ms Sindiswa Busuky (UCT),
  37.  Ms Raisa Cachalia (UJ),
  38.  Dr Lydia Cairncross (UCT),
  39.  Prof Hugo Canham (Wits),
  40.  Dr Ally Cassiem (UJ),
  41.  Claire Ceruti (Wits),
  42.  Prof Sarah Charlton (Wits),
  43.  Dr Ruchi Chaturvedi (UCT),
  44.  Dr Thokozani Chilenga-Butao (Wits),
  45.  Ms Skye Chirape (UCT),
  46.  Prof Linda Chisolm (UJ),
  47.  Ms Natasha Christopher (Wits),
  48.  Dr Mary Clasquin-Johnson (Unisa),
  49.  Prof Michel Clasquin-Johnson (Unisa),
  50.  Prof Marié-Heleen Coetzee (UP),
  51.  Dr Deborah Constant (UCT),
  52.  Prof Linda Cooper (UCT),
  53.  Prof Vernon Coyne (UCT),
  54.  Dr Andrew Craig (UJ),
  55.  Dr Lindelwa Dalamba (Wits),
  56.  Prof Collet Dandara (UCT),
  57.  Dr Nazreen Dasoo (UJ),
  58.  Dr Shari Daya (UCT),
  59.  Mr Rogerio de Andrade (TUT),
  60.  Prof Stephan De Beer (UP),
  61.  Dr Rick De Villiers (UFS),
  62.  Mr Rehad Desai (UJ),
  63.  Senior Prof Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie (UWC),
  64.  Dr Arona Dison (UWC),
  65.  Mr Tertius Du Bruyn (CPUT),
  66.  Jacob MJ du Plessis (SU),
  67.  Dr Marijke Du Toit (UWC),
  68.  Dr Jean du Toit (NWU),
  69.  Dr Bernard Dubbeld (SU),
  70.  Dr Siphiwe Dube (Wits),
  71.  Dr Federica Duca (Wits),
  72.  Prof Jane Duncan (UJ),
  73.  Prof Zozo Dyani-Mhango (UP),
  74.  Ms Elmarie Edwardes (UCT),
  75.  Mr Xander Ehlers (UP),
  76.  Dr William Ellis (UWC),
  77.  Dr Aidan Erasmus (UWC),
  78.  Prof Zimitri Erasmus (Wits),
  79.  Dr Kira Erwin (DUT),
  80.  Dr David Erwin (UCT),
  81.  Prof Amanda Esterhuysen (Wits),
  82.  Dr Khayaat Fakier (SU),
  83.  Prof Nicky Falkof (Wits),
  84.  Dr Ana Ferreira (Wits),
  85.  Prof Gertrude Fester (UCT),
  86.  Prof Sean Field (UCT),
  87.  Ms Meghan Finn (UJ),
  88.  Ms Jessica Foli (Wits),
  89.  Dr Jung Ran Forte (UWC),
  90.  Dr Ilse Fouché (Wits),
  91.  Ms Carla Fourie (UCT),
  92.  Prof Pier Paolo Frassinelli (UJ),
  93.  Mx Kerry Frizelle (UKZN),
  94.  Prof Roshan Galvaan (UCT),
  95.  Dr Faisal Garba (UCT),
  96.  DR Tendayi Garutsa (NWU),
  97.  Prof Diane Gray (UCT),
  98.  Tim Gebbie (UCT),
  99.  Prof Diana Gibson (UWC),
  100.  Dr Kelly Gillespie (UWC),
  101.  Dr Kelsey Glennon (Wits),
  102.  Mr Sven Glietenberg (UJ),
  103.  Dr Sarah Godsell (Wits),
  104.  Dr André Goodrich (NWU),
  105.  Ms Theresa Gordon (DUT),
  106.  Prof Heidi Grunebaum (UWC),
  107.  Ms Xolisa Guzula (UCT),
  108.  Prof Thulane Gxubane (UCT),
  109.  Prof Karen Haire (SPU),
  110.  Ms Sheri Hamilton (UJ),
  111.  Tamantha Hammerschlag (UKZN),
  112.  Dr Elina Hankela (UJ),
  113.  Dr Robynne Hansmann (DUT),
  114.  Geoff Harris (DUT),
  115.  Prof Karen Harris (UP),
  116.  Prof Annemarie Hattingh (UCT),
  117.  Ms Roela Hattingh (UJ),
  118.  Prof Patricia Hayes (UWC),
  119.  Ms Charlene Herselman (UP),
  120.  Mr Hilton Heydenrych (UCT),
  121.  Dr Kate Highman (UCT),
  122.  Dr Ali Hlongwane (Wits),
  123.  Dr Chris Holdridge (NWU),
  124.  Prof Julia Hornberger (Wits),
  125.  Ms Bridget Horner (UKZN),
  126.  Dr Simon Hull (UCT),
  127.  Dr Catherine Hutchings (UCT),
  128.  Dean Hutton (Wits),
  129.  Prof Geoffrey Hyland (UCT),
  130.  Prof Robert Ingle (UCT),
  131.  Prof Mehita Iqani (Wits),
  132.  Ms Taryn Isaacs De Vega (RU),
  133.  Prof Salma Ismail (UCT),
  134.  Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman (UP),
  135.  Prof Paolo Israel (UWC),
  136.  Prof David Jacobs (UCT),
  137.  Prof Phil Janney (UCT),
  138.  Mocke Jansen van Veuren (Wits),
  139.  Dr Anna-Marie Jansen van Vuuren (TUT),
  140.  Prof Nicola Jones (UKZN),
  141.  Ms Shaeera Kalla (The Mbegu Platform),
  142.  Prof Debbie Kaminer (UCT),
  143.  Prof Rochelle Kapp (UCT),
  144.  Dr Abdulrazak Karriem (UWC),
  145.  Ms Tania Katzschner (UCT),
  146.  Prof Maria Keet (UCT),
  147.  Prof Bridget Kenny (Wits),
  148.  Dr Andrew Kerr (UCT),
  149.  Pervaiz Khan (Wits),
  150.  Mrs Mariola Kirova (UCT),
  151.  Ms Ulrike Kistner (UP),
  152.  Mr Reshard Kolabhai (NWU),
  153.  Dorothee Kreutzfeldt (W),
  154.  Dr Detlev Krige (UP),
  155.  Prof Michelle Kuttel (UCT),
  156.  Dr Erna Lampen (SU),
  157.  Dr Julien Larena (UCT),
  158.  Ms Nthabiseng Latakgomo (UJ),
  159.  Prof Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (Wits),
  160.  Dr Clint Le Bruyns (UKZN),
  161.  Ms Karen Le Jeune (UCT),
  162.  Dr Chris Lennard (UCT),
  163.  Lizelle le Roux (UP),
  164.  Prof Sekibakiba Lekgoathi (Wits),
  165.  Dr Kezia Lewins (Wits),
  166.  Dr Sabrina Liccardo (UP),
  167.  Dr Rolene Liebenberg (CPUT),
  168.  Dr Warren Lilley (UCT),
  169.  Prof Andrew Lilley (Uct),
  170.  Dr GM Lincoln (DUT),
  171.  Ms Michal-Maré Linden (UP),
  172.  Dr Arianna Lissoni (Wits),
  173.  Ms Pam Lloyd (UCT),
  174.  Dr Erica Lombard (UCT),
  175.  Prof Caroline Long (UJ),
  176.  Mrs Pandora Long (UKZN),
  177.  Ms Tracey Lotter (TUT),
  178.  Prof Kathy Luckett (UCT),
  179.  Thembi Luckett (Wits),
  180.  Prof Rozena Maart (UKZN),
  181.  Prof Soraya Maart (UCT),
  182.  Prof Helen Macdonald (UCT),
  183.  Prof Tshepo Madlingozi (Wits),
  184.  Mr Seke Mafuika (UKZN),
  185.  Dr Siphokazi Magadla (RU),
  186.  Prof Rasigan Maharajh (TUT),
  187.  Prof Nomusa Makhubu (UCT),
  188.  Rev Moshe Moses Makoa (CUT),
  189.  Ms Tumi Mampane (UJ),
  190.  Prof Rashida Manjoo (UCT),
  191.  Dr Heather Marco (UCT),
  192.  Prof Monique Marks (DUT),
  193.  Dr Mohamed mathee (UJ),
  194.  Dr Olivia Matshabane (UCT),
  195.  Dr Namhla Matshanda (UWC),
  196.  Prof Julian May (UWC),
  197.  Dr Sithembile Mbete (UP),
  198.  Prof Sioux McKenna (RU),
  199.  Prof Judith McKenzie (UCT),
  200.  Prof Carolyn McKinney (UCT),
  201.  Dr Belinda Mendelowitz (Wits),
  202.  Ms Tamar Meskin (UKZN),
  203.  Ms Andiswa Mfengu (UCT),
  204.  Miss Njabulo Mncwabe (UKZN),
  205.  Mr Tseliso Moahloli (DUT),
  206.  Dr Joel Modiri (UP),
  207.  Ms Kharnita Mohamed (UCT),
  208.  Dr Polo Moji (UCT),
  209.  Dr Tshepo Moloi (UFS),
  210.  Prof Elena Moore Moore (UCT),
  211.  Ms Moshibudi Motimele (Wits),
  212.  Ms Mapheyeledi Motimele (UCT),
  213.  Dr Kelley Moult (UCT),
  214.  Prof Tom Moultrie (UCT),
  215.  Ms Fairuz Mullagee (UWC),
  216.  Ms Jana Muller (UP),
  217.  Nicky Muller (DUT),
  218.  Dr Gift Mupambwa (NWU),
  219.  Prof Grace A Musila (Wits),
  220.  Dr Leigh-Ann Naidoo (UCT),
  221.  Dr Prishani Naidoo (Wits),
  222.  Prof Kevin Naidoo (UCT),
  223.  Dr Catherine Namono (Wits),
  224.  Dr Yvette Naudé (UP),
  225.  Mr Christiaan Naudé (UP),
  226.  Prof Noor Nieftagodien (Wits),
  227.  Dr Sylvia Nkanyuza (WSU),
  228.  Dr Laura Nkula-Wenz (UCT),
  229.  Dr Gideon Nomdo (UCT),
  230.  Robin Notshulwana (NMU),
  231.  Prof Francis Nyamnjoh (UCT),
  232.  Dr Phefumula Nyoni (UJ),
  233.  Dr Kiran Odhav (NWU),
  234.  Prof Desmond Painter (SU),
  235.  Dr Nisa Paleker (UP),
  236.  Mr Simon Pamphilon (RU),
  237.  Prof Amrita Pande (UCT),
  238.  Prof Romy Parker (UCT),
  239.  Dr Veena Partab (DUT),
  240.  Dr Lorenco Pinto (SPU),
  241.  Dr Sandra Pitcher (UKZN),
  242.  Lyndal Pottier (UCT),
  243.  Dr Neo Pule (UFS),
  244.  Charles Puttergill (UP),
  245.  Jane Quinn (UKZN),
  246.  Prof Joel Quirk (Wits),
  247.  Prof Shahana Rasool (UJ),
  248.  Prof Ciraj Rassool (UWC),
  249.  Prof Duncan Reyburn (UP),
  250.  Rose-Anne Reynolds (UCT),
  251.  Prof Steven Robins (SU),
  252.  Prof Neil Roos (UFS),
  253.  Prof Nicky Rousseau (UWC),
  254.  Mr Jacques Rousseau (UCT),
  255.  Prof Margot Rubin (Wits),
  256.  Saajidha Saajidha Sader (UKZN),
  257.  Dr Melanie Sampson (Wits),
  258.  Prof Lisa Saville Young (RU),
  259.  Dr Helen Scanlon (UCT),
  260.  Dr Anneliese Schauerte (UCT),
  261.  Mx Patrick Schuster (UCT),
  262.  Prof Leanne Scott (UCT),
  263.  Warona Seane (UCT),
  264.  Dr Fatima Seedat (UCT),
  265.  Irna Senekal (NMU),
  266.  Prof Alison September (UCT),
  267.  Dr Rubina Setlhare (UJ),
  268.  Prof Federico Settler (UKZN),
  269.  Prof Tamara Shefer (UWC),
  270.  Kwanele Shoba (UKZN),
  271.  Mr William Shoki (Wits),
  272.  Dr Sanele Sibanda (UP),
  273.  Ms Ingrid Sinclair (UNISA),
  274.  Dr Rike Sitas (UCT),
  275.  Lynne Slonimsky (Wits),
  276.  Dr Andre Steenkamp (CPUT),
  277.  Prof Tina Steiner (SU),
  278.  Mr Dewald Steyn (UP),
  279.  Mr Ken Stucke (UJ),
  280.  Dr Maria Suriano (Wits),
  281.  Dr Christine Swart (UCT),
  282.  Mr Maki Tini (WSU),
  283.  Prof Francois Toerien (UCT),
  284.  Ms Allison Triegaardt (Wits),
  285.  Prof Hedley Twidle (UCT),
  286.  Dr Carla Tsampiras (UCT),
  287.  Prof Nicole Ulrich (RU),
  288.  Dr Walter Uys (UCT),
  289.  Mr Sachet Valjee (UKZN),
  290.  Prof Salim Vally (UJ),
  291.  Dr Natasha Vally (UCT),
  292.  Prof Mary van der Riet (UKZN),
  293.  Prof Lucien Van der Walt (UCKAR),
  294.  Mr Thomas van Heerden (UCT),
  295.  Prof Ermien van Pletzen (UCT),
  296.  Dr Ahmed Veriava (Wits),
  297.  Ms Celeste Von Fintel (UP),
  298.  Miss Rosette Sifa Vuninga (UWC),
  299.  Prof Marion Walton (UCT),
  300.  Prof Catherine Ward (UCT),
  301.  Prof Bernhard Weiss (UCT),
  302.  Dr Hylton White (Wits),
  303.  Dr Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon (Wits),
  304.  Prof Leslie Witz (UWC),
  305.  Dr Nicky Wolmarans (UCT),
  306.  Dr Sahal Yacoob (UCT)

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paula Green says:

    Though not an academic, I had the benefit of doing all my studies in person and fully support the view that online learning is never as good as, and can never replace genuine interaction between student peers and students and teachers. I would be proud to add my name to this long list of committed tertiary institution teachers.

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