It IS possible to build a post-Covid-19 future today

Stellenbosch University was able to handle the Covid-19 pandemic remarkably well because of the agility and expertise of staff and students, says the writer. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Stellenbosch University was able to handle the Covid-19 pandemic remarkably well because of the agility and expertise of staff and students, says the writer. File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 29, 2021


Wim de Villiers

It has been a year since South Africa went into lockdown because of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic. And what a year it has been! It feels like the longest and yet shortest 365 days in living memory.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa initially announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, three weeks seemed like a long time. Little did we know what awaited us. We were preparing for a sprint, but it soon became clear we were running a marathon, which has now become an ultramarathon.

Here we are, 365 days later, and still in lockdown. Alert levels have been relaxed and tightened from time to time, but what remains constant is the impact on our lives. We live in a new world in many ways, one that came about very quickly.

Our daily reality consists of mask-wearing, distancing and sanitising – which one becomes used to. Harder to deal with are the constant interruptions to our lives and the level of uncertainty. That is our new normal.

But with challenges come opportunities, as we experienced in the higher education sector. Universities have had to make drastic changes the past year, which has not been easy, but we have also gained a lot and are in a position to contribute to the future beyond Covid.

My second term as rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University (SU) started last year. I had optimistically set some expansive goals for the next five years, but very quickly the year became dominated by the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

We quickly realised that innovation and adaptability were going to be key for successfully trekking through the uneasy terrain. A lecturer standing in front of a white board in a classroom full of students all of a sudden seemed outdated.

When contact tuition was suspended a year ago, we had to rapidly switch to online methods of learning and teaching. The development of hybrid learning models had been gaining momentum for a few years, and then the crisis pressed the fast-forward button. What we had been planning to do over five years, we had to get done in five weeks.

It took tremendous team effort. Everyone pulled their weight – from lecturers who had to repackage their courses, and students who suddenly had to get used to exclusively online class attendance and assessments, to IT experts who had to upgrade overloaded systems in record time, and managers who had to find ways of keeping things going, come what may.

We procured more that 1 700 laptops and made these available to students, obtaining special permission for courier deliveries to addresses all over the country during the initial days of the lockdown. We provided mobile data to students to ensure they would have access to the internet.

Exams were conducted entirely online for the first time in SU’s history. Faculties and departments, lecturers and support divisions made an extraordinary effort to make sure these went off relatively smoothly, with only a few exceptions.

SU was able to handle the Covid-19 pandemic remarkably well because of the agility and expertise of staff and students. But it was a balancing act. We had to navigate the turbulent waters of the pandemic while not losing sight of our overall goals and vision. We did so by instituting different ways of working, in the process learning many useful lessons that will stand us in good stead in future, and also by looking after our people.

That was crucial because, although extensive support was provided to lecturers, tutors and students, everyone worked under extreme pressure and there were frequent reports of extreme exhaustion. Working from home with family created tension for many, especially colleagues who had additional responsibilities of looking after young children and being involved in home-schooling.

It was – and continues to be – a time of loss. Some staff members and students experienced personal tragedy when they lost family members and close friends. Job losses, although avoided to a large extent at SU, was experienced by some staff members and students in their circle of family and friends.

Many students experienced financial and mental strain due to the lockdown and the ensuing restriction of movement. Covid-19 again sensitised us about the how much students’ circumstances for successful learning differ. Not all our students could return to circumstances at home conducive to learning. Many experienced internet connectivity challenges, and load shedding certainly helped no one.

As we move deeper into the second year of Covid-19, SU’s focus is no longer only on mitigating the pandemic to the best of our ability. We also aim to go beyond it, working resolutely towards realising our vision to advance knowledge in service of society. To this end, we are capitalising on the opportunities the pandemic has created.

We can build on the hundreds of multidisciplinary coronavirus-related research projects and activities which unfolded in various SU environments in response to the crisis. SU scientists turned stale bread into alcohol-based hand sanitiser, technologists deployed robots in a hospital so that specialists could conduct ward rounds remotely, and engineers printed 3D ventilator, to mention a few initiatives.

Also in terms of social impact, SU made a tangible difference to the lives of many people through such efforts as providing food aid to vulnerable households around our campuses, in collaboration with stakeholders. And our Campus Health Service assisted local and provincial authorities with screening, planning and protocols. The partnerships and networks developed in the process can help us go forward together with the broader community.

In terms of learning and teaching, I am happy to say that SU managed to award 8 979 qualifications in the 2020 calendar year – in line with previous years, quite remarkable given the circumstances.

This year, however, we want to go beyond emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment. We are augmenting it with a return to face-to-face interaction as far as possible, in order to provide an optimal learning experience.

We welcomed our students back on campus for the start of the academic year on March 15– not only because we may do so in terms of the regulations. There is a more fundamental reason. In their book, The Innovative University, higher education experts Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring state: “A university’s professors and face-to-face meeting spaces are unique and potentially invaluable.” As a residential university, we want to make full use of the remarkable “people” and “place” SU has to offer.

Of course, we are in the middle of a pandemic, so we require strict adherence to our comprehensive protocols and measures to combat Covid-19. The safety, health and well-being of our staff and students remain our priority.

As it was last year, SU’s overarching goals for this year again are to complete the academic year successfully and remain sustainable as a leading higher education institution.

Covid-19 is not our only challenge – universities nationwide are dealing with the issue of student funding. At SU, the complexity of building inclusive multilingualism remains a challenge. But we take heart from what we have learnt: that with adaptability, innovation, collaboration and a can-do spirit, no challenge is insurmountable.

We don’t know what tomorrow may bring, but we do know it is possible to build a post-coronavirus future today.

* Professor Wim de Villiers is the rector and vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, chair of Higher Health, vice-chair of Universities South Africa, and a board member of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

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