Defend Truth


SA universities are failing to meet the challenges of teaching during the Covid-19 lockdown


Dr Jacob Cloete received his PhD from the University of the Western Cape. His dissertation focuses on the complexities of the conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His postdoctoral research is a critique of the postcolonial university in Africa. His research uses dance, San rock art and documentary film to unmask coloniality in the postcolonial university in Africa. Cloete is also the Manager of Zone Learning at the University of the Western Cape which aims to introduce entrepreneurship and innovation in the curriculum.

The Covid-19 pandemic, like the #FeesMustFall movement, has shown the gaps and vulnerability of traditional universities in an era that requires more flexibility in their operational systems.

It is now clear, given the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, and especially the struggle in the Global North to cope and contain the spread of the virus, it will be a while before things go back to normal.

For us, in South Africa, things are looking optimistic. As it stands now, we might recover before the Global North. Yet, even if we were to contain and manage the spread of the virus before the Global North, we are still part of the global political economy. 

We need the Global North and it does not help us if they are under lockdown. Universities in South Africa are also part of this political economy and after this lockdown, they have to reconsider their readiness for the next global disaster.

The lockdown has several implications for universities in South Africa. Universities have sent their students home and they have been informed that the second term will be completed online. There will be no physical classes in the second term. There are four critical issues that universities have to consider to make their online venture a success: affordability, connectivity, assessment and student support. The most important of these four issues are affordability and connectivity.

Firstly, many students are from disadvantaged backgrounds and cannot afford data for a distant online university education system. Over the past decade, most universities have moved their teaching and learning resources to online platforms. To access these resources, universities also provided students with free WiFi. A distant online university education will not be accessible for poor students if they do not have free access to the internet. 

Recently, Telkom, Cell C and MTN announced they would give zero-rated access to university websites and online study materials. But, it is not clear whether this provision would include access to online journal databases such as Google Scholar, JSTOR and Sabinet. If students get free access to university websites and online journal databases, there is still the issue of access to computers and laptops. Not every university student has a laptop, a tablet or a computer that would connect them to the internet. Without the proper devices, poor students will not be able to connect to the university and do the work that is required of them.

The second issue is connectivity. Let’s say we overcome the affordability issue – there would still be many students that would not be able to connect to the internet because of poor signal. In some parts of rural South Africa, there is no cellphone reception. Students from these areas will not be able to connect to the university and they will not be able to do the work that is required of them.

The third issue is about the assessment. Until now, many lecturers, with the help of tutors, were able to cope with the lecturing demand. Tutors also assisted lecturers with the assessment of assignments and tests. Most, if not all, of these classes, were face-to-face. But, during the lockdown, face-to-face lecturing is not possible. 

The traditional teaching and learning method must be converted to fit an online and self-study education. And it is not as easy as copying and pasting the work onto an online platform. Lecturers must also take into consideration the various learning styles of students and tailor their online material to suit every student’s need. Moreover, if universities overcome all these challenges, there is another outstanding issue and that is ensuring the integrity of the assessment.

For me, this might be the biggest problem both lecturers and tutors must face. Universities have crafted their own unique and nuanced assessment systems to ensure the integrity of the assessment and thus the qualification. The online assessment is also uncharted territory for many traditional universities and they will have to figure out a way to ensure the legitimacy of the qualification. There is also the issue of special tests, special exams and second chance evaluations. These assessment forms must also be converted to an online platform and measures must be in place to ensure the integrity of the assessment, and the qualification.

The final issue is student support services. The university has an ethical obligation towards its students to provide them with the necessary systems of support to cope and pass their qualification. Online tutoring and mentoring support for many traditional universities are uncharted territories. Many universities do not have an online system of support in place and it will take a while to develop such a system. 

Many students, over the years, also found the university to be a safe space, especially if they come from broken homes and abusive families. The university residence has become their home. When the president announced the lockdown, students were given a very short time to pack their stuff and go home. Some students did not have homes to go to and were forced to stay on in university residences, and other students like international students could not go home because flights were suspended.

#FeesMustFall has taught the university that no student must be left behind. It was because some students were left behind that students have been protesting since 2015 against issues of marginalisation and exclusion. This online venture of the universities runs the risk of marginalising and excluding poor students. 

The Covid-19 pandemic, like the #FeesMustFall movement, has shown the gaps and vulnerability of the traditional university in an era that requires more flexibility in their operational systems. Covid-19 shows us that the traditional university in South Africa is not ready for a global pandemic. The traditional university is not ready because of a lack of foresight. This lack of foresight is the result of the resistance among academics to change the status quo of the university. 

There have been many conversations inside the university to embrace a more flexible teaching and learning system. Yet, whenever this was raised, the dogmatic response and the autocritique was to guard the university against neoliberalism.

The reality is that many universities in South Africa are an artefact of the colonial university and are neoliberal to the core. This colonial artefact is mostly benefiting senior academics and administrators. The university has stopped being socially responsive (in the Jakes Gerwel sense), a long time ago – if it ever was. The traditional university is fast becoming outdated. It urgently needs a flexible teaching and learning response.

South African universities saw the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. They saw that many universities in the Global North were announcing their closure and moving to an online system. Yet, South African universities failed to be proactive. They did not think of the far-reaching effects of the spread of Covid-19. Some even refused to cancel their trips to the Global North. They were telling their colleagues they were over-reacting and that Covid-19 was not as dangerous as the flu virus. They did not think about a possible lockdown and the effects it would have on the teaching and learning operations. They hoped that it would pass.

And when universities reported their first Covid-19 cases, they acted without thinking. They certainly did not think about how a lockdown would affect the poor university student. Academics and administrators acted from a privileged middle-class position. They thought they solved the problem when they announced the “online approach”.

But if they are honest, they did not solve anything. If they are honest, they will admit the pandemic revealed their lack of foresight and their obsession with maintaining a colonial artefact. They are clouded by their arrogance and middle-class privilege to see that a future is approaching in which they are no more. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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