The COVID-19 pandemic and higher learning in South Africa

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in all higher education institutions moving their learning to online platforms. Institutions and students have experienced substantial challenges during this migration due to the scale and pace at which the change must be implemented. The pandemic has highlighted the deep inequalities amongst the country’s 26 universities. While well-endowed institutions (e.g. Wits University, University of Cape Town) were able to commence with online learning between 20 April and 4 May, historically disadvantaged institutions (e.g. University of Venda, University of Fort Hare) have been unable to fully migrate to online learning for a myriad of reasons (e.g. lack of expertise, infrastructure, resources). The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation set a deadline of 1 June 2020 for all institutions to implement contingency plans to ensure that the 2020 academic year can be completed by the first quarter of 2021.

By all accounts, it seems that all institutions have met the deadline set by the minister. In addition to meeting the deadline, institutions are in the process of welcoming back 33% of students as per level 3 regulations. As things stand, it looks like the academic year will be completed by the first quarter of 2021. 

The interruption in contact teaching and inaccessibility of learning facilities – such as computer labs, libraries and basic connectivity – has brought to the fore existing inequalities amongst students. Not all students have laptops or smartphones, which has made it difficult for them to access online learning. Although some institutions have attempted to bridge the gap by providing laptops and data to their students, those in rural areas and townships have been disadvantaged as issues with connectivity, electricity and physical space have impeded online learning.   

Despite the challenges highlighted above, the pandemic presents the higher education sector with an opportunity to reinvent itself and scale its offering to a wider audience. Institutions will have to ask themselves which programmes can be offered online. For instance, as a postgraduate student myself, who has had to transition from contact teaching to online learning, an argument can be made that postgraduate degrees that do not have a practical component can be offered online, both fully and permanently.

Academic and psychosocial support systems for students who opt for online learning will have to be strengthened. Upon registration, all students will have to be provided with laptops and data each month, both of which can be included in tuition fees. To overcome the challenge of physical space for learning, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) will have to work with local municipalities to ensure that local libraries are functional and are equipped with unlimited Wi-Fi that students can access. In addition, academic staff will have to exercise flexibility in modes of setting and submissions of assessments, to cater for students who are still learning computer literacy.

Needless to say, the shift from contact teaching to online learning is not an overnight process. It is a massive, multi-faceted undertaking that will require patience and determination. Resources will have to be made available to institutions, particularly historically disadvantaged institutions. Partnerships will have to have to be formed amongst multiple stakeholders to ensure that the migration to online learning is successful. For private social investors, this is a great opportunity to help promote and foster “21st Century” approaches to higher education, whether that be through support for an individual institution, a group of students or DHET as it navigates this complex space.

As Winston Churchill once said, “never waste a good crisis”. The South African higher education sector has an opportunity to leverage the Covid-19 crisis to transform university learning for the better, making it more accessible and effective into the future. Social investors, working in smart partnership with other stakeholders in the sector, can have an outsized impact in helping to make this happen.