Coronavirus a cataclysmic disruption to higher education

Professor Xoliswa Mtose is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Zululand.

Professor Xoliswa Mtose is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Zululand.

Published May 7, 2020


Within a short period of time of its discovery, Covid-19 has unleashed mayhem, anxiety, and immense human suffering.

The governments around the world have responded in different ways to the advent of the pandemic. Mostly, countries have instituted some form of lockdown to reduce the rapid spread of the virus.

The virus is not going away any time soon. The story of TB is a case in point. We have been living with this bacterium since the first wave of TB deaths in the 1800s.

The higher education sector has not escaped the cataclysmic disruption that has been wrought by the virus. Universities have been forced to close, and teaching and learning has now moved online.

This unprecedented reality has forced educational institutions to develop and implement multi-modal remote-learning systems comprising the use of digital, analogue and physical delivery of learning materials.

At the same time, the pandemic has also exposed the hitherto unresolved historic socio-economic inequalities in the country.

In this context, it is appropriate to caution that the current crisis should not be a time for grandstanding. Rather, it should be a time to acknowledge the existence of both historical privileges and the systemic disadvantage that continue to blight the higher education sector. It is thus important that the national response to the pandemic should not deepen these inequalities.

The Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande has aptly underscored this challenge thus, that “we are constrained by the very same challenges we seek to address, poverty, inequality and unemployment. The very problems we seek to solve are the obstacles standing in our way”.

As universities begin to settle into online learning, they are called on to resolve structural inequalities in the form of ensuring “access of students to laptops, data and connectivity to conducive spaces to study”. Fortunately, the government has committed itself to mobilise resources to ensure these resources are available to all students.

As the post-school sector transitions to remote teaching and learning, there are however some hurdles to negotiate.

For instance, students will find themselves vulnerable to stress as a result of being disconnected from other students, and thus lacking the sense of camaraderie that comes from being on campus. Students will need some training and be given emotional support to ensure a safe landing.

Learning remotely should not only be about the provision of gadgets, but must be understood to be a means to providing a quality learning experience for students. It is also about reinventing higher education.

It is worth noting that universities have not been bystanders amid the unfolding developments. For instance, the University of Zululand established a Covid-19 combat team that will serve as a think-tank to monitor the effects of, and to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

* Professor Mtose is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Zululand.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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