Minister Blade Nzimande spells out plans for higher education
Pretoria - The country’s universities and colleges are on track to complete the 2020 and 2021 academic years, Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Dr Blade Nzimande said yesterday.
Nzimande told a media briefing that 10 of the country’s 26 institutions had finished their formal academic years. He said they were wrapping up special exams. The remainder would follow suit at different times, according to the minister.
“Once the 2020 academic year is completed, the 2021 academic year will start after the matric results are released so that new students are given an opportunity to be admitted, ” he said.
Nzimande also said the department had invested R68 766 000 in funds reprioritised from the 2019/20 and 2020/21 budget allocation towards Covid-19 research and development.
“They will target specifically areas of diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, surveillance and epidemiology, including genomic epidemiology.”
His department worked continuously on science and innovation interventions with, among others, the Department of Health, the South African Medical Research Council, the Academy of Science of South Africa, the CSIR and the Human Science Research Council.
“We also have on board the National Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities, the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa and the Biovac Institute,” said Nzimande, who also revealed that many staff members and students had tested positive for the coronavirus and some had died.
In universities, 1 499 staff and 1 588 students had tested positive by mid-November, while 48 staff and 10 students had died, he said.
“We will be receiving an updated report on infections and fatalities at our universities tomorrow (today). We know that infections will have risen over the festive season,” he added.
The TVET sector had also suffered, and in the period between December 15 and January 11 Nzimande said 146 staff members had been infected, with 123 recoveries, and there had been 23 deaths.
“The infection rate in Community Education and Training Colleges has seen 21 students, three support staff and 74 lecturers test positive. Of these, 20 student and three staff, plus 62 lecturers, have recovered.”
He said there had been four deaths – one a student and three lecturers – while at the Sector Education and Training Authority (Seta) the infection rate was 57, with four deaths.
He said the numbers could increase as data collection during the festive season had not been at its best. “The system has been closed for the festive season, but the department will continue to collect data as soon as the sector fully reopens and we will continue to update the public on the situation as it develops.”
For the continued learning and teaching in the post-school sector, he said the department had been working closely with other experts, scientists and stakeholders, especially the World Health Organization, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, the Department of Health and other agencies to build comprehensive programmes, systems, controls and infrastructure for a sectoral response to Covid-19.
“This included the establishment of guidelines, protocols and capacity building – which is all grounded in science,” he said.
“We have updated all Covid protocols, guidelines and training materials with the evolving scientific advancements, to enable retraining and strengthening management and front-line teams for the reopening of institutions during level lockdown 3 this year,” he said, adding that Covid, student health and wellness challenges and epidemics, including mental health, gender-based violence and HIV, among others, were receiving attention and services.
“Our approach is that whilst focusing on Covid 19 we must, however, not lose focus on the other health and welfare challenges in the sector.”
During the lockdown, more than 100 000 students across all campuses continued receiving HIV services, contraceptive support, access to reporting and subsequent gender-based violence support services.
The 24-hour hotline for mental health and gender-based violence established last August had managed more than 5 000 crisis calls.
He said the pandemic had placed an increasing strain on mental health and gender-based violence. “I urge all students to access this free helpline number, 0800 363636.”
Additionally, the higher education health team started retraining all institutional and campus Covid task teams in order to respond to the pandemic, while more rigorous training on campus was ongoing for front-line workers, student and staff volunteers, who will be redeployed across campuses to manage the pandemic.
“I must also acknowledge that this has been a challenging time for the academic staff of our institutions, who have had to adapt rapidly to new forms of teaching and student support, and who have shown commitment to learning themselves and supporting students, often across multiple different platforms.
“I commend this work, as well as the work of institutional managers, administrators and support staff who have worked hard to adapt to the necessary changes,” he added.