South Africa

Year in Review: Higher Education

Annus horribilis provides universities with an opportunity to reinvent themselves

Illustrative image | Sources: Gallo Images / Ziyaad Douglas | Flickr / GCIS | EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma

Higher education was battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and while some institutions are crawling to the finishing line of the 2020 academic year, others are trudging on until March 2021. We reflect on the year that was, with some of the sector's hits, misses and surprising developments propelling higher learning into a new and innovative era.

To say 2020 was a tumultuous year for higher education is an understatement. Across the country, campuses shut their doors and turned to emergency remote teaching and learning in a bid to save the academic year. 

Many top institutions have celebrated their December graduation season, albeit virtually, while others are still pushing to finish the academic year. It’s a bittersweet moment to reflect on the hits and misses in the sector, with a keen eye on what developments will mean for the future of higher learning.

The story begins in March, after the first confirmed case of coronavirus hit our shores. Amid the imminent spread of the disease, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande announced that institutions had to close by 18 March. At the time, many were oblivious to the looming hard lockdown. 

Some top institutions, such as the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Wits, had already suspended contact teaching after Covid-19 crept on to campuses. UCT gave students 72 hours to leave, stranding many without ready access to vital resources such as computer labs, internet access and libraries. And so the shift to blended learning began. 

Associate Professor Alan Cliff, the interim Dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at UCT, says the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online modes of teaching and learning, albeit with limitations.

“What we’ve been doing this year is not what I would call online learning and teaching. It’s more a kind of emergency response to a crisis situation, but it’s prepared the ground for us to move in that direction,” Cliff told Daily Maverick.

Cracks in the system

As many institutions announced the resumption of teaching and learning in late April, online modes of delivery were touted as the best solution to saving the academic year. But vast inequalities meant some students could continue their studies almost uninterrupted while others were at risk of falling behind. 

High data costs, connectivity issues, and access to laptops and other devices were just a few points of concern. Institutions that could afford to bridge the gap chipped in quickly, dispatching laptops to students in need, providing data bundles and striking deals with network providers for free access to critical websites.

Network operators forced to drop prices and make learning accessible

Nzimande announced in June that National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students in need would receive laptops, but delays with awarding the tender meant students would receive them only in March 2021, at the beginning of the new academic year.

Concerns over equitable access to learning sparked anger among student unions. The South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) threatened a boycott of online learning, noting concerns that it was creating a split academic year in which privileged students progressed while the poor were left behind. 

But, as Cliff explains, some students with access to the internet and devices were also “left behind”: 

“It’s what our university has begun to call ‘invisible students’,” — students whose environment may affect their ability to learn. 

A statement released on 14 December by a group of lecturers from universities across the country noted that disrupted home environments had a negative effect on students’ mental health and academic outcomes.

“If the home is the primary learning environment for students, the effects of segregated and unequal neighbourhoods directly condition students’ learning experiences,” the statement read.

“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.” 

Lecturers cautioned against a rush towards online learning as the new normal in higher education. Many had noticed higher drop-out rates in their classes in the second semester, a sign that “relationships that sustain classrooms were unravelling”.

The group considered the academic year unsuccessful, in response to remarks made by Nzimande in late November that average marks had gone up from previous years.

But marks, the statement noted, were secondary to the quality and substance of the actual educational experience. Without face-to-face engagement, things that characterise campus life, such as the exchange of ideas and experiences among people from differing backgrounds, were diminished, and so too the opportunity to foster democratic values. 

Alongside their students, higher education staff too have had to grapple with challenges. “Suddenly, work is also folded into looking after family and folded into living conditions with the whole family in the home,” said Cliff. 

On top of this, educators became the frontline support for students, often being called upon day and night, which meant precious research time was lost with the overload of duties. 

How UJ steered the academic year through lockdown and online education

But at some institutions, such as the University of Johannesburg (UJ), the delivery of online and blended modes of education was considered a success. One strategy UJ used was to develop an integrated online education approach. Teaching and learning weren’t delivered on traditional devices only, but via cellphones and through social media. The university found ways for some students to complete laboratory work sessions online while others were moved to later in the year. In some cases, lecturers and tutors also exploited cheaper data costs between midnight and 5am, and provided support for students during these unusual hours.

Budget constraints a threat to the sector

Institutions and the government alike faced budget cuts due to the pandemic. The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation’s budget, for example, was cut by close to R10-billion. In October, students and opposition parties slammed the decision to reroute a further R1.1-billion from higher education towards a R10.5-billion bailout for South African Airways. 

The department did not respond to queries on the repercussions of budget cuts on the sector. 

According to Cliff, UCT, for example, is facing a four- to five-year financial recovery period from the pandemic — if there aren’t any major disruptions to the university. “We’ve marshalled a whole lot of resources and that means they won’t be available immediately into the future.”

With the possibility of fee increases at universities, Cliff acknowledged that student protests may be on the horizon. 

In his most recent address, Nzimande said he’d written to university councils with proposed fee increases for 2021 of 4.7% on tuition fees and 6.7% on accommodation fees. He was awaiting a response on the matter. 

According to Cliff, the financial climate meant fee hikes were almost a given. “[The department] has to pass on fee increases because they simply don’t have the money to cover the sort of subsidies that we might have had in the sector before.”

Stellenbosch University Vice-Chancellor Wim de Villiers wrote in a Daily Maverick op-ed that budget cuts at universities touched on five income streams: state subsidies, student fees, research contracts, philanthropic donations and commercial income.

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

In response to possible fee increases, Sasco expressed “disappointment” in a statement published on 26 November.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has further placed many households under economic distress and the fee increment will perpetuate that distress.” Sasco called on university and college councils to reject the proposal from the department and refrain from implementing fee hikes.

The South African Union of Students (SAUS) echoed Sasco’s call for zero fee increases.

“Any increase will force black students into further debt, more so Covid-19 has put our people into dire economic conditions such that increasing fees will be an anti-majoritarian and liberal decision which must be rejected by all thinking people and progressive organisations,” the student union told Daily Maverick. 

When asked whether budget cuts were a threat to the promise of free education, Cliff said that endeavour was unfeasible before the pandemic and was now even more unlikely. 

After the prolific #FeesMustFall campaign, then president Jacob Zuma announced in 2017 that the following year, the government would provide subsidised education to all new first-year students from families earning less than R350,000 a year. Assistance from NSFAS was changed from a loan to a bursary from 2018 as part of a five-year plan to phase in a new Department of Higher Education and Training bursary scheme. 

According to the SAUS, about 700,000 students are beneficiaries. 

Critics have said the promise of free education is unrealistic. From arguments that the local economy is too weak to fund the endeavour, to concerns that corruption and wasteful expenditure within government will derail the project, the consensus is that the economy and taxpayers cannot shoulder the financial burden of free higher education for all.

The SAUS says the free education model excludes the “missing middle” — students who don’t qualify for financial aid, but cannot afford university fees. 

The Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme is being piloted at six universities as a funding scheme for the missing middle. It targets students pursuing qualifications in scarce skills such as accounting, engineering and medicine. Students with an annual household income of zero to R600,000 may apply.

A brief look at TVET colleges

Apart from universities, TVET colleges also felt the sting of Covid-19, though not much has been said about the impact on the sector. 

TVETs have faced a number of challenges in the past, including poor infrastructure and outdated curriculums. During lockdown, student unions and SRCs voiced concerns that remote learning would especially disadvantage TVET students who relied on hands-on, face-to-face teaching and learning. 

Last year, the government announced a shift in focus towards the TVET sector as a possible silver bullet for youth unemployment, which reached 34.1% in April 2020 for young people aged 15 to 34. With the jobs bloodbath brought on by the pandemic, vocational jobs are now being looked at as South Africans are pushed into the informal sector. 

According to Cliff, attention towards TVETs was necessary and mentioned the need for collaboration and resource sharing within higher education to uplift the TVET sector. With the government’s promise to build nine new TVET colleges, Cliff said it was important that a cohort of sufficiently qualified educators were available to teach in those institutions. 

Where to now?

While Covid-19 posed challenges, it has also presented great prospects to reinvent higher education. Blended learning (a combination of traditional methods and online instruction) has been identified as an opportunity to democratise higher learning, by reducing costs. 

Varsities leap into the future

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are disruptors in the higher education landscape, as well as digital campuses, which have sprung up catering for working professionals looking to reskill without the demands of on-campus instruction. The fourth industrial revolution has also made its debut in teaching and learning, with institutions such as UJ offering accounting and architecture courses using gamification and 3-D renderings to make course content more interactive. 

“Now we can do virtual engagements in studio work, lab work, performing and creative arts work, all those kinds of places where we’d formerly said, there’s no other way other than face-to-face [teaching]. So, we’re looking at massive innovation in the field and an opening up of people’s minds in a way,” said Cliff. 

Stellenbosch University Vice-Chancellor De Villiers wrote in Daily Maverick that in pursuing online modes of education, universities must not compromise on their core business of delivering well-qualified graduates, producing relevant research and having a positive impact on society.

And while embracing online technology, institutions should still make the most of their full-time professors and physical campuses, which are invaluable, even though they may be perceived as a “competitive liability in a world of technological disruption”. Developing soft skills and having in-person networking opportunities are still seen as vital to students. 

With changes on the horizon, balancing innovation and inclusivity, and ensuring students are prepared for the rapidly shifting world of work is vital. As the UJ Vice-Chancellor Tshilidzi Marwala writes

“On our current trajectory, we risk deepening our digital divide and leaving the vast majority of our population behind. We have to rethink and redefine. Here, we are really on the precipice of change, and as educational institutions, we have a responsibility not only to prepare our students for these shifts but to map out how we heed the call for more inclusive systems. While perhaps a clichéd phrase in these times, we are certainly facing a new normal and amid this context, it cannot be business — or education — as usual.” DM


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  • It seems the entire country is really oblivious to the looting that has been happening at universities over the last decade or so. DM, please do an investigation into the handling of bursary funds at UWC, with particular attention to the Finance Department. Don’t be surprised if you find senior lecturers who cannot do basic arithmetic…

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