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Covid-19 and South African universities: A raft of problems to ponder

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Gaopalelwe Mathiba is a former student leader, LLB & LLM cum laude graduate and doctoral researcher at UCT.

As universities observe the lockdown call and overhaul campus operations, many may not be able to facilitate online teaching with immediate effect because of resource and infrastructural constraints. The feasibility of remote teaching is also doubtful given the wide disparities among students in terms of access to adequate resources and the internet.

The novel coronavirus disease (covid-19) is real. It is raging like the turbulent waves of the Red Sea. Its impact is strongly felt by everyone across all sectors within and beyond South Africa. The higher education sector is not spared from this wrath. As of 9 April, the virus had infected more than 1,800 people in the country, with 18 reported deaths.

This invisible enemy has forced everyone into a 21-day nationwide lockdown since 26 March, which has now been extended for a further two weeks. The lockdown is intended to “flatten the curve” by starving this virus and retarding its exponential spread through a number of adopted containment measures. These include compulsory social distancing, self-isolation or quarantine, restrictions of movement, closure of places with large gathering capacities such as pubs, gyms, restaurants, museums and movie theatres. 

What is more, universities have observed the lockdown call and overhauled operations and campus routine events such as contact teaching, conferences, graduation ceremonies and research workshops. Students have been instructed to stay at home and staff to work remotely. What comes after lockdown remains unknown. Largely predicted is a rapid transition of various courses and programmes from contact to online delivery mode. For this also, the feasibility is doubtful given the wide disparities among students in terms of access to adequate resources and the internet. 

The dark alchemy of fear and uncertainty continues to ripple through universities, making it difficult, if not impossible, to tell with precision what remains to be done, when, by who, and how, to secure a successful completion of the academic year.  

While I acknowledge that predicting the future might be an unwise exercise given the rapid developments around Covid-19, I nevertheless believe that there is a set of common challenges confronting all universities at this point. For any university, here are some of the challenges to ponder:     

The first challenge, and the most imminent, is the transition from contact to online teaching mode. Some universities have been sending online surveys to students to get an indication of their state of readiness to learn online. Some have already begun preparing teaching programmes to deliver online classes. To any university, online teaching is not really a new phenomenon since staff members receive routine training to use IT systems and online teaching tools as an additional aid to contact teaching. 

However, while online teaching may seem a wise option under the prevailing circumstances, it is most unlikely to be workable and accommodating to all the students, particularly the poor and underprivileged. Even for students who might be privileged, learning online may be a difficult exercise too, given that computers and internet facilities at home are in high demand now that everyone, parents and other family members, have to work from home.

Another reality is that many universities may not be able to facilitate online teaching with immediate effect because of resource and infrastructural constraints. Several questions remain unanswered:

One, what about students who do not have access to laptops and internet at home? Two, what will happen to those students whose courses cannot be taught online? Falling into this category are students who have to conduct laboratory experiments, practicals and arts performances. Last, how will the universities assure the quality of online teaching in juxtaposition with the value-for-money notion? These are some of the modalities that universities will have to consider attentively in moving the direction of online teaching.   

The second challenge relates to students’ assessment and evaluation methods under online arrangement. At this point, most universities are still up in the air on how they will facilitate first semester examinations, on the one hand. Continuous assessments are also likely to carry on alongside online teaching, something that will also be difficult to endure for most students, on the other. The tricky scenario for most universities right now is finding out methods of administering the outstanding tasks, assignment projects and other continuous assessments. 

The most likely solution would be to alter the assessment types to fit the online setup. But then with this, the difficult part is monitoring students and ensuring that they are not cheating during online exams and tests. For students without access to computers, they might miss the assessments and the consequences are obvious – failure. So this calls for much generous thinking on the part of those deciding these matters.

Third, the truth is Covid-19 has disrupted the lives and plans of not only students, but everyone else. The fact that things remain uncertain makes it even worse, causing anxiety about what is going to happen next. This brings another challenge, which is psychological. Most students are stressing about their future — the health effects of this are, of course, undesirable. 

For instance, some students, apart from NSFAS, are funded by private entities that require them to obtain high grades to sustain the funding, or complete repayment in case of failure or an average pass. The impact is even worse for cash-paying students. Some are likely to graduate late due to the postponement of everything. This poses a serious risk to their careers. These are some of the grave concerns for many students — and here the million-dollar question is whether the universities are taking proactive measures to support the mental health and well-being of students during these critical times.

Last, there is no university without international students. Thus the other challenge relates to the stranded international students who cannot travel back to their home countries at this critical time due to lockdown restrictions on international travel. How most universities handled campus residence evacuation in the wake of the lockdown is very disappointing and cold-blooded, for being inconsiderate of this category of students, of whom a majority do not have alternative accommodation beside the one provided by universities.

It has become a great challenge for administrators to ensure food, accommodation and safety service for those non-national students. Students also need proper advice to protect themselves from any person-to-person contact and to live in self-isolation until the situation becomes normal. An extension of stay due to the delay of examinations may also cause a monetary challenge. Those who manage to go home are concerned that their studies will be interrupted. At home, many students may not have the correct setup such as books, computers and an adequate internet connection to participate in online learning. 

All these challenges ought to serve as a wake-up call to all university authorities that tough interventions really need to be taken, and be taken urgently. At this time, every university ought to be looking into devising a crisis response plan and establishing a multi-stakeholder task unit to facilitate the implementation of that plan.  

This is the right opportunity for universities to walk the talk of flexibility and demonstrate their forever-sung chorus of “students’ interest remains our key priority”. Among urgent interventions that need to be considered are to provide the needy students, as far as they can, with the requisite support for them to participate in the projected online teaching.

For students whose courses cannot be taught online, the university authorities may explore the possibility of simply grading students on what had already been done before Covid-19. However, postponement until things normalise should only be considered as a measure of last resort.   

In addition, the mental health and well-being of students cannot be overemphasised during these uncertain times. Thus, universities have to provide adequate psychological support. The university accommodation should also remain accessible to stranded international students — they are surely a manageable fraction at any university, and logistical support needs to be provided whenever it is necessary and possible to do.  

In conclusion, the emerging and ever-changing dynamics around Covid-19 clearly show that universities are also not off the hook in preparing for the new era post-Covid-19 and how they plan to face that era with less strain on the university ecosystem. DM

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