Already on the back foot, can Fort Hare save its academic year?

As some universities around South Africa hone their lockdown plans to move to online teaching, there are increasing indications that 2020 could become an academic write-off for the already beleaguered University of Fort Hare.

The Eastern Cape-based university, the alma mater of some of the continent’s most influential political leaders and intellectuals – including Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and Julius Nyerere – today houses some of the country’s most disadvantaged rural students.

The campus has been the site of one protest after another since the beginning of the year over safety issues and financial exclusion. In April last year, former Higher Education Minister Dr Naledi Pandor dissolved the university's council, and appointed Professor Loyiso Nongxa as its administrator with the aim of restoring "good governance". After the expiry of his term, Nongxa was replaced this week (7 May) by Nhlanganiso Dladla.

In early March, shocking images of students sleeping in the streets emerged after the academic programme was suspended and students were told to vacate the campus and residences following weeks of “violence and intimidation”. This left many students from deep rural areas without accommodation.

That was before COVID-19 struck. On 25 March, Fort Hare’s 15,400 students were once again sent off campus to comply with the national lockdown. In a nutshell, not much work has been done at Fort Hare this year.

In a frank interview, Professor Renuka Vithal, the deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs, conceded that the university had lost “most of the first term” as a result of student protests.

“We already had more to make up than most other institutions. Now, with the added challenges of COVID-19, the academic year will effectively have to be restarted when we eventually return,” she said.

While the better-off universities started their online learning last month, Vithal said Fort Hare finds itself on the back foot in terms of the roll-out of online teaching and learning. Students, now operating from mostly poor households, often without electricity and in areas with very poor cellular network signal, are, in many cases, simply unable to operate online.

A survey conducted by the university found that fewer than 30% of students would be able to access online material. The university recently announced a moratorium on all online assessments in view of the fact that a large proportion of students would have data and connectivity challenges.

Redirected resources

Vithal said recent developments have made the university redirect its resources. “We took a decision to make 12,000 laptops, as well as modems and data, available to students who did not have laptops for their online learning, based on a loan-to-buy scheme, meaning the cost of the devices would be debited against their fee accounts.

“We see this as a once-off significant investment. Our thinking was that it would be important not only as part of a process of trying to address the move towards using online during lockdown, but also as an investment for when we return to campus.

“It will assist us to ramp up the teaching and learning we will have to do to make up the time. In conjunction with this roll-out of laptops we are preparing to provide all our students with data. We have already made a significant start to providing access to Wi-Fi and computer labs.

“We think we need to do that, together with the laptops, but also because we’ve established that at least 12,500 students have smartphones, so the vast majority of students should be able to access teaching and learning activities online.”

Asked how far the university is with procuring the laptops, Vithal said that acquiring between 10,000 and 12,000 laptops has a “substantial funding implication” with massive logistical and administrative challenges.

“The process has started and those students requiring laptops have started applying online.”

Fort Hare’s spokesperson Thandi Mapukata said once the exact numbers of students needing laptops has been ascertained, the university will place an order. “That process will take between six and eight weeks,” she said.

Vithal said the university had, before the lockdown, started the process of moving all modules and course materials online and providing training and support for that process to happen. This will continue during the lockdown.

She said about 83% of the first semester modules are now online.

First steps online

“We are taking the first steps to ensure that all materials are put online and are trying to assist academics in that process. But the idea that you can take a traditionally contact university and, literally overnight, in the space of a few weeks, transform it into an online distance university and ensure the quality of the teaching and materials is not borne out in the literature.

“It’s a very different activity, requiring different skills and competencies to do effectively. Only a very small proportion of academics in contact universities are proficient in online teaching … It remains to be seen how this will impact success rates at the end of the year.

“In the worry and concern to save the academic year and the huge implications of not completing it, I fear the price might be paid in quality and we might see a drop in pass rates,” she said.

“Even before this happened, our regular time completions were very low. We also have a large proportion of students for whom English is not a first language and who have to navigate learning through written materials and, even for academics, this is a major challenge.

“Although there is some amount of recording lectures, etc, I don’t know the extent to which that will happen system-wise. In any university you offer several thousand modules in a year. Whether every single lecture will appear on the system as a podcast or recorded lecture is unlikely.”

Nevertheless, some material had been uploaded on the Blackboard e-education platform and, when students return to campus, the university will follow blended learning systems, meaning all students should have all the tools necessary to make up for lost time.

Vithal was also highly aware of the personal challenges faced by students at the university. “The numerous small towns and villages of the Eastern Cape (from where many of our students come) are not well served with connectivity, so that is a challenge which is out of the hands of the university.

“So, indeed, we have major challenges in making up the academic year.”

Ongoing disruptions

In the meantime, even when the lockdown ends and life returns to some kind of normality, the Fort Hare authorities foresee continued and sustained disruption to normal university functions.

The year has been characterised by disruptions related to, among others, failure of payment of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and other disbursements to students.

Remarkably, Vithal believes there are “silver linings”: “Fort Hare has a very strong legacy. It’s a university that is really loved by the people who went there and a sense that, as an historically disadvantaged institution, it has overcome many battles … so, yes, there are major challenges but also a sense of ‘let’s see what we can do in this situation’.

“The students are resilient. They know the challenges they have and that’s why we have the protests we do, but one has to do what we can to address them.

“We do see a possibility that when we return we would move the institution forward significantly through this laptop initiative as it will enable us to move towards a much more digital university. It will impact a lot of our other systems.”

Life Mabaso, a political science masters student and who was a Student Representative Council member until his term ended in April, painted a portrait of a typical Fort Hare student’s challenges.

“I am from Limpopo [South Africa's northern-most province],” he said. “I only got home yesterday [3 May] as I had been on campus until a day before the lockdown. I was stuck in the Eastern Cape because I could not travel home.

“I called a friend … and ended up staying in Queenstown [Eastern Cape] for the lockdown. I was able to eat there for 35 days as there was no way to travel or get finance.

“I am meant to be sponsored by the Services SETA (Sector Education and Training Authority) but the payments have not been made. Even the tuition has not been covered. We have not received a cent for this whole year.”

‘Protest after protest’

“This whole year has been protest after protest and then a week after the protests there was the lockdown. So I would say we’ve had about a week of normal functioning.

“We had just returned from the university chasing us out after the strikes and protests …. and then, three days later, the president announced the lockdown and we were told we would have to leave three days later.

“I am now back home, just outside Tzaneen. My parents are unemployed. My dad was working in security but they let him go and my mom was selling vegetables.

“I don’t know what will happen to this academic year. I want to continue doing my research but I don’t have the resources to do so. I have a laptop but I can’t afford the data. The network is very poor here and I can’t access the information.

“I was quite excited about this year. There was a lot of hope. I had my honours degree and I thought maybe I will get a job. The year was filled with job applications.

“I have a great interest in local government, on the admin side. My degree is in public administration and my honours and MA are in political studies. One of my dreams is to be able to build a school to give someone from my background a chance to go to a university like the University of Cape Town.

“Us poor people are set up to be in a particular level of life. You can’t move beyond that.”

He said he will stay in Limpopo until it’s safe to get back to the Fort Hare campus.

“I would love to get back to my studies. It was the only thing that was working out. Honestly, I feel this year academically is over for most Fort Hare students. It’s a write-off.”