Online learning set to continue, financial outlook gloomy

South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, has outlined plans for the reopening of tertiary institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but several key challenges remain, and university bosses are predicting a tougher year ahead, with many institutions facing a possible financial crisis.

Tertiary institutions are set to begin the academic year in March, with learning expected to be conducted online for the first term as students facing access difficulties should have been given laptops and data to connect to their lectures by then.

In a statement on 18 January regarding the reopening of post-school education and training (PSET) institutions, Nzimande said the COVID-19 crisis was connected to a wider set of crises: social inequality, climate change, technological disruption – and, linked to all of the above – a crisis in the global capitalist system.

Despite the pandemic, the National Students’ Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which provides government-funded loans to students, received more than 750,000 applications for the 2021 academic year.

This is an increase of about 185,000 applications or 25% on the 2020 applications, showing a high level of demand for funding support and access to higher education and training opportunities.

“This epidemic has dominated our minds and hearts in the year 2020 and seems to do the same this year. It has brought unprecedented challenges for the leadership and management of both our PSET sector and our national system of innovation,” Nzimande said.

“We had to change the manner in which we allocated our human and financial resources, we had to mobilise all our stakeholders in both these sectors, so that government and all our stakeholders could in unison agree on a common programme for implementation,” he added.

Nzimande announced that all institutions have aligned the start of the 2021 academic year for first-time entries, with the results of the Department of Basic Education’s National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination on 26 February paving the way for institutions to reopen between March and April 2021.

An NSC provides entry into higher education when it meets individual universities’ entry requirements.

Sustainability of universities in question

But there will be no easy ride for financially hard-pressed institutions, according to Professor Ahmed Bawa, the CEO of Universities South Africa, the representative body of South African public universities.

He noted that South Africa was in the grip of another surge in the number of people affected by COVID-19.

“We are deeply concerned about the short- and long-term impact of the pandemic on the sustainability of the universities,” he said.

“They are, without question, finding themselves in a serious financial crisis. While we have had modest cuts in government subsidy in the 2020-2021 academic year, the financial plans of [the national] Treasury and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) for the 2021-2022 academic year is yet to be announced.

“In addition, the expenditures on ensuring the safety of students and staff from infection, together with the additional expenses to roll out the multiple teaching-learning platforms, add much to the financial burden being borne by the institutions,” he added.

Bawa said the second surge of COVID-19 infections is much more substantial than the first and, therefore, the 26 public universities are gearing up to continue with alternative modes of delivery.

“Some universities will depend heavily on the use of remote online learning platforms, others will bring students into residences and then use the technology available on campuses for learning purposes. Universities will not return to face-to-face teaching for the time being,” he said.

On a positive note, Bawa said the lessons learned from last year were very valuable and all 26 universities would be better placed for learning-teaching in 2021 compared to last year. “Much of the material that was developed last year will be relevant for this year,” he said.

Several studies have also been carried out to determine the financial challenges being faced by the institutions, but Bawa admitted that varsity bosses have been told by the DHET that there are no additional resources available in the national fiscus.

“We are anxiously awaiting information about the state of funding over the next financial year,” he said.

Start of academic year delayed

Despite the challenging outlook, universities are gearing up for the academic year.

Normah Zondo, the acting executive director of corporate relations at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said the university had put in place measures to ensure that the 2021 registration processes continue in a manner that mitigates the health and safety risks.

“All 2021 registration processes will be completed online and from remote locations as there will be no registration services and-or registration assistance available on any of our campuses,” she said.

Simangele Zuma, media officer at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), said 8,709 students still require access to campus for practical assessments and laboratory work to complete the 2020 academic year.

“This is 25.6% of the student body. This is the only group of students who will be issued special permits to access relevant campuses, buildings and facilities. The rest of the students will not return to campus, until further notice,” she said.

According to the amended DUT academic calendar, the second semester of the 2020 academic year ended on 15 January 2021, followed by relevant semester assessments to be completed by 29 January.

Besides the national regulations and protocols, Zuma said the university had developed its own COVID-19 protocols, and would continue to support students through remote, multimodal teaching, learning and assessment.

The head of media liaison at the University of Cape Town, Nombuso Shabalala, said registration for first-time undergraduate students was scheduled to take place from 1 March, while registration for returning students began on 20 January, with the academic year scheduled to commence on 15 March 2021.

“Plans for the 2021 academic year at UCT are based on the understanding that the COVID-19 pandemic will continue … While COVID-19 is still with us, we have learned from the lessons of 2020," she said.

"We have seen how difficult it was for many of our students to learn remotely for various reasons, including their social conditions.

"For safety reasons, UCT will adopt physically distanced learning this year, but in a way that will allow students to benefit from the resources available on campus, including free Wi-Fi,” she said.

“Long before last year, we had already recognised the need to draw from various teaching methods that range between fully face-to-face and fully online.

"We launched our first massive open online course in 2015. In 2018 we launched an automated video recording venue to support academics going online. At the start of 2020, about 60% of UCT lecturers had chosen to record their lectures,” she added.

Online learning continues

Gasant Abarder, the acting director of institutional advancement at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where the 2021 academic year is set to start on 8 March, said UWC had learned to be agile to the changing circumstances posed by the pandemic.

The university ensured that its learning and teaching platforms were available with free data. The university provided more than 13,000 students studying remotely with data each month and more than 6,000 students with devices.

The students were charged for the devices and this was offset with a fundraising campaign called #NoStudentWillBeLeftBehind as well as support from the DHET.

In addition, following a needs analysis, the most vulnerable students returned to campus to work from their residences where they have full access to Wi-Fi, which is widely available on campus.

This approach will continue in 2021, but students must provide their own devices or take up an option to purchase a device through the university.

Yonela Tukwayo, the executive director of marketing, communications and advancement at Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape, said the university already had some students back on campus to complete the 2020 academic calendar.

“Although we are continuing with online learning, some require practical and laboratory work and those are some of the students back on campus already, including those who struggle with internet connectivity from home," she said.

The 2021 academic year would commence in March and, at this stage, it was difficult to predict whether it would be full contact or online learning, but the institution was planning for both eventualities, she said.

The manager of media liaison at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Herman Esterhuizen, said UJ had planned its academic activities for 2021 in accordance with different scenarios and the university was ready to implement any one of the scenarios, depending on the COVID-19 situation.

The scenarios ranged from fully online, to blended, to face-to face tuition.

In 2020, UJ demonstrated that it was able to move from contact to online tuition with ease. It was one of few institutions that managed to complete the academic year on time as planned, he said.

This year, the start of academic activities for senior students takes place from 15 February, while the start of academic activities for first-year students is on 8 March, three weeks later.

Registration for undergraduates (first years) commences on 23 February 2021 and closes on 5 March 2021. All registrations are done online and off-campus.

However, the first term of the academic year, as with all institutions throughout South Africa, will be conducted online.