Opinionista Zamantungwa Mvelase and Lindokuhle Mandyoli 16 April 2020

Covid-19: It affects everyone – but for postgraduate students it’s a matter of degrees

The coronavirus pandemic has changed how education is accessed and students must be able to make sense of it all. Is Covid-19 stimulating us to think differently about the meaning of a conducive research environment?

On 20 March, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande ordered all universities to go into early recess. This signalled the suspension of academic activities until what was meant to be mid-April. For postgraduate students, there was hope that research activities could continue and that they still stood a chance of completing their degrees. Then, on 23 March, the President announced a lockdown of the country as of midnight 26 March. Research, requiring human interaction or lab-based work, came to a grinding halt.

While postgraduate students were still processing events, Nzimande announced: “The department has requested all universities to complete an updated survey on their IT capability for offering online learning.” This provoked a shift in mentality about methods of teaching, learning and research at universities. Nzimande’s call for universities to assess their capacity for online learning suggested a clear move by the department to keep universities open and operational via remote learning. The intentions of the minister were clearly to save the academic year, but there are many challenges. What about postgraduate students?

To practically implement any idea of online teaching or research, the enabling resources must be taken into consideration. The question of access to these resources becomes an opportunity and a challenge. South Africa is known as one of the most unequal countries in the world, and according to research conducted by UNISA in 2018, the majority of South Africans are living below the official poverty line, which is indicative of large scale socio-economic inequality. This is representative of many of the students in higher education.

The core essentials for postgraduate students to conduct their research include access to a computer, internet, a supervisor and the ability to work in an enabling environment – all of which are often available in a university setting. During these unprecedented times of Covid-19, postgraduates no longer have access to their institutions. Students were evacuated from their residences and told to return home. 

Now, many are confined to spaces with no access to the necessary tools and infrastructure to continue with the academic project. The lockdown has meant that alternatives such as internet cafes and accessing resources through neighbours or relatives are also out of the equation. Therefore, all decisions made in the interest of sustaining teaching, learning and research throughout the pandemic has left not only postgraduate students in a fix, but also the higher education sector as it tries to navigate its way through these challenges. Access has taken on a new meaning, and students need to be consulted to make sense of it. 

The process of research is a process of learning. Postgraduate students learn through methods of academic investigation, through carrying out a research project, and through interaction with peers and mentors. As such, research and learning are inextricably linked. 

Ken A Gaetz from Winona State University reflected on learning environments and made the point that “all learning takes place in a physical environment with quantifiable and perceptible physical characteristics. Whether sitting in a large lecture hall, underneath a tree, or in front of a computer screen, students are engulfed by environmental information”. He makes the point here that the environment is a fundamental feature that enables or restricts learning. Is Covid-19 stimulating us to think differently about the meaning of a conducive research environment?

Research students tend to thrive in an environment that propels them in different ways. Let’s organise these into three categories: (i) the comrade, (ii) the confidant and (iii) the contemporary. A comrade can be understood as someone who shares with you a present experience of something – for instance, students in a designated postgraduate lab, university residence or cafeteria creating a peer-to-peer platform that helps them learn from each other. A confidant, loosely understood, is a figure one trusts and goes to in a quest for guidance; in this context, the supervisor is the confidant. The ability to access advice, guidance and a reliable soundboard is invaluable on the engaging journey of research. Finally, the contemporary – this is a person who has achieved most of what you wish to achieve – we call them mentors. Mentors play a different role from supervisors, as they provide the necessary motivation and impetus to stay plugged into research.

If these three Cs are not available, will it have an impact on the mental health of postgraduate students? Alongside the anxieties that come with a pandemic of this nature, and the restrictions it imposes, what will postgraduate students be like when society returns to normal? With the lockdown forcing universities to close, students have limited or no access to support and counselling services on campuses.

This compromised traditional research environment may harm both the experience and outcome of research for postgraduate students. But there could be an opportunity in this new reality. It is well recorded in history that tragedy, at times, has sparked the creativity of humanity in the interests of preservation. The lesson here is that there is a need to (re)imagine the idea of ‘normal’, particularly in the context of a university. 

Postgraduate students should contribute to rethinking how we can continue to effectively engage our 3 Cs in our new reality. Many creative alternatives have been used by some universities during this time to continue university operations, and they are commendable. How do we transform the ‘alternative measures’ into mainstream operations?

This calls for the university to evolve in a way that allows it to deal with many shifting stages of ‘normalcy’, instead of a canonical view of what is normal – which provokes a crisis response that resembles present-day Covid-19 reactions. Of course, there is no way to enable this without spending time battling traditional views of the university and money in order to facilitate the infrastructural support necessary for this shift.

We are not attempting to proffer immediately workable solutions – although we would have loved to. Instead, we are proposing a conceptual framework to look at a university without boundaries – one which can be functional in terms of operations, research and teaching and learning in normal and peculiar circumstances. 

As two postgraduate students, we accept there can be varying factors relevant to, and perspectives on, this problem from the multitude of stakeholders that make up the university. 

Still, we are using this opportunity to provoke some thought about tertiary education beyond the pandemic. DM

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