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Completing the academic year is important – but the welfare of all students comes first


There is a unanimous push at universities towards ‘saving the academic year’, as a complete loss of the year would be something of a catastrophe. But the well-being of our students must come first – we must handle this moment with an emphasis on social justice, compassion and care.

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. It has been 26 years since the abolition of apartheid, yet race, class and gender remain determinant factors for access to opportunities for students in this country. The effects of this stark reality stem from the deep-rooted legacies of colonialism, apartheid and the neoliberal policies of post-apartheid South Africa.

With our history of structural racialised inequalities, the realities of most South African students are very different to those in developed countries. While the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting most parts of the world, it seems pertinent that South Africa does not blindly adopt response measures for higher education that are employed in developed countries without carefully considering our distinctive contextual realities.

In March 2020, the government established a task team led by Deputy Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology Buti Manamela to address the Covid-19 response in higher education. The department’s proposal is that all universities should shift to online teaching. The department went on to request all universities to complete a survey which details their information technology capabilities for offering online teaching.

Simultaneously, universities’ management teams have issued a survey for all students to complete regarding their access to a conducive working space and technological resources for online learning. The department aims to use this data to help any universities which need immediate assistance in enhancing their technological capabilities.

With the decision to begin the second term with online teaching as announced by a couple of institutions on 20 April 2020, to date there has been no clear communication of the outcomes of the surveys and how or if the department will be assisting specific universities and students with the necessary resources before the commencement of the second term of the academic year.

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Johannesburg (UJ), University of Pretoria (UP), Stellenbosch University and University of Cape Town (UCT) – who have all confirmed starting with online teaching on 20 April – have detailed the measures that they will take in an attempt to assist their students to access remote teaching.

These measures include loaning laptops or specific devices to South African students who meet the financial requirements as well as sourcing commitments from telecommunications service providers to allow zero-rated data usage for the library and university learning sites.

The University of Fort Hare (UFH) has also established zero-rated agreements with South African network providers for their students and encourages their students to keep up to date with their academic work online. How and whether their students will be assisted with technological devices, however, has not been communicated.

Over the past few weeks, institutions have been very active in putting strategies in place to move towards remote teaching in order to complete the academic year. Understandably, there seems to be a unanimous push towards “saving the academic year”, as a complete loss of the year would be something of a catastrophe.

This decision also does not come without its own very real challenges for many of our students, again with race, class and gender inequalities as important determinants of how the challenges weigh differently for our students.

As someone who is a lecturer at UCT and having observed the communications from management at our university regarding the online teaching plans, I am deeply concerned about the numbers of students who will undoubtedly be left behind during this academic year. As our institution is spending many hours on Zoom webinars training lecturers who are used to face-to-face teaching to speedily shift towards an emergency remote teaching approach and developing orientation online sessions for students, many of us worry whether that would be enough for our students.

While it is encouraging to see different institutions’ great efforts to provide numerous tools and methods that we – as lecturers – can use to engage with students on their academics, many of us can not shake the feeling of, “I wonder how many students will simply not be able to learn the material of my course and/or any of their other courses simply because of their circumstances.”

Many of us also wonder whether they have the mental capacity to complete this academic year through remote learning while continuing to live under unfavourable contextual circumstances in addition to living through a global disaster. We already know that many black South African students at universities unequally face circumstances which may prohibit some of them from being able to learn remotely online for reasons such as access to basic resources such as reliable electricity, food and water, laptops/tablets, data/wi-fi, or their own quiet and safe spaces at home where they can concentrate and learn.

Other reasons – from which they would have been otherwise buffered if they were staying at university residences – include balancing responsibilities at home such as cooking, cleaning and looking after ill family members or younger siblings. Furthermore, we need to consider that it is possible that many students may be directly affected or infected with Covid-19 and need to attend to their and/or their loved ones’ physical and mental well-being.

I therefore reiterate the call posited by The People’s Coalition for South African universities, lecturers and academics to stand in solidarity with our students during this difficult time.

The approach that South African universities ought to take in response to Covid-19 needs to be socially just, aim to not perpetuate inequalities and carefully consider our student’s contextual realities. It may be important to therefore not simply align with international approaches of strictly online teaching but to also think creatively about other methods to accommodate all our students. Further, we should as far as possible also resist the urge to put academic assessments ahead of students’ well-being.

Let us first and foremost prioritise our students’ personal well-being and push ourselves (and our institutions) to ask the “why” questions – which may be underscored by their “invisibilised” realities – when or if students do not engage or successfully complete their set academic activities.

Let us aim to leave no students behind – especially those who already experience gross inequality.

Let us be considerate, creative, flexible and reflective in our approach to both ourselves and our students because at the end of the day we are all living through an experience crippled with uncertainties which none of us have ever encountered before.

Handling this moment in history with careful consideration and an emphasis on social justice, compassion and care may assist us in grappling with not only the immediate psychosocial implications of this pandemic, but also some of the long-term social, psychological and economic implications which our students may be facing for many years, perhaps even decades to come.


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Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER

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