Now that South Africa stands at Level 1 of Lockdown and we can taste the return to some version of "normal" on the tips of our tongues, one has to ask the question: So what will happen at Universities once lockdown is over or even the now?
For one, it's very obvious that life will never be normal in the way we once knew. To start, lectures with hundreds of students in a lecture hall is probably a thing of the past.
Professor Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa (USAf) said, “In the short-term, it is very unlikely that there will be an immediate return to large-class teaching". Bawa also said that it's too early to say if small classes will be the "new normal".
However, Stellenbosch University's (SU0 Vice Chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, said, "We will be resuming contact tuition as soon as we can, but this does not mean that we will simply return to business as usual when the current crisis is over." De Villiers did however say that e-learning will stay as the University has been aiming to take further aspects of learning online for years.
The current safety measures Universities have in place might stay until a vaccine is found and the country is actually able to control the virus and the ensuing pandemic. This will be done so that a further spread can be prevented or as Health Minister of South Africa has said, to prevent a superspread which usually takes place at mass gatherings.
“Higher education is in a state of flux throughout the world. There are many uncertainties and many dimensions to its possible reimagining. This will be one of them,” he said.
Wits University deputy vice-chancellor: academic Professor Rukhsana Omar said, "Those who require additional assistance, will participate in boot camps, more lectures and receive additional support if required."
Omar has said that the priorities of Universities have now changed and includes exploring new pedagogies for learning, teaching and assessments, including blended learning options (in person and online teaching), securing a new learning management system, ensuring that students have access to good quality content both for contact and remote teaching and learning.
University of Free State (UFS) Vice-Chancellor, Professor Francis Petersen, said that the University is using the Covid period to create an innovative, evidence-based approach to learning and teaching, which is informed by data analytics.
Petersen agreed with Bawa in saying that normal contact classes won't be seen anytime soon across the country's Universities as he doesn't think that "going back to the old normal should be the aim".
The 2021 academic year will most likely only start between March and April. This is to make way for institutions who were not as advanced and fast to continue their academic programmes online as we observe a national lockdown. Some Universities will finish on time and as planned pre-Covid while others might only finish between January and March. This, many have said has revealed a two-tier system existing in Higher Education between the more advantaged Universities and disadvantaged historically black Universities.
Petersen said, “In 2021, the UFS will use the lessons from the pandemic to implement an improved blended teaching and learning approach, which will provide students with the opportunity to benefit from the flexibility and innovation that online learning platforms provide, complemented by well-structured face-to-face sessions. The key challenges were student access to data, networks, and devices, as well as the lack of a conducive learning environment for some students at home".
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has also recognised this issue and has said, “In addition to the national management of the pandemic, universities face the ongoing challenges of connectivity in certain areas of South Africa, the relatively high cost of data especially for economically disadvantaged households, and the unreliability of the electricity supply.”
Seithati Semenokane, spokesperson for the Central University of Technology (CUT) in Bloemfontein has said, "Our greatest challenge is how to reach out to students in remote areas with limited access to e-technology, as not all of them are in the position to migrate to online learning seamlessly.”
As for Nelson Mandela University's (NMU) way of continuing the academic programme in 2021, according to the University's spokesperson Zandile Mbabela, will see NMU, "implement a flexible blended learning approach in which we blend contact, online and experiential learning and teaching in various ways". This would allow the University to remain agile and adaptable, she said, as they expand and enhance their blended learning approach.
“We have learned from the first six months of the lockdown that the evolution of the pandemic is such that you have to be careful not to run too far ahead with planning," said Mbalela.
As for Sol Plaatje University (SPU) who saw the end of the first semester end of August and started their second semester on 14 September. SPU's spokesperson, Kashini Maistry said, “We are one of 14 institutions in the country that has been categorised as low risk, in terms of how we have managed and contained the spread of Covid-19, and we are on course to complete the academic year in 2020.”
Many students have made the decision to continue an online learning programme even if they are allowed to return to campuses. On the other side are the students who have little to no access to resources to have participated in an online learning programme in the first place.
The emergency plan implemeted which saw many Higher Education institutions go online has lead to de-registrations and drop outs.
SPU's Maisty haas said that the University might "be unable to reach an agreed enrolment target".
The move to online learning and teaching across South Africa's Universities has digitally enhanced the Higher Education sector, at least for most of the Universities in the country who could afford the option. Now, the student body awaits announcements on the Department's next move.
Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, is set to speak on measures across the sector for Level 1 on Wednesday, 30 September, at 14:00.