Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)
Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA)

Varsities to rework academic year if lockdown continues beyond 21 days

By Chulumanco Mahamba Time of article published Apr 8, 2020

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Johannesburg - University vice-chancellors have committed themselves and the universities to completing the 2020 academic year despite the interruptions caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. 

The board of Universities South Africa (USAf) said in a statement that following a virtual meeting which included 26 vice-chancellors on March 25, it was decided that April 20 would be the “planning horizon” for the reworking 2020 academic year. 

USAf’s chief executive Professor Ahmed Bawa told The Star on Tuesday that April 20 was the proposed date because there was uncertainty regarding the pandemic and what the outcome of the 21-day lockdown would be on April 16. 

“If the lockdown continues then what we will do is try to rework the academic year looking at different scenarios and trying to understand what would happen if we had to reopen on the first of June or first of August,” Bawa said.

During the meeting with USAf, which was attended by all universities except two, it was debated whether the majority of South African students were ready to switch completely to online learning. 

The board said that was an urge for serious introspection over how the sector might ensure all its students were able to continue to study virtually, considering that some universiers only had a minority of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds while in other universities these students make up the majority. 

“Stemming from this debate, one view was that universities may be forced to stay totally closed until the national lockdown is lifted, and consider re-opening around August or September alongside the university system in the northern hemisphere,” the board said. 

Bawa added that if the lockdown continued, the organization would put together alternative delivery platforms for academic programmes, postgraduate programmes and research. 

“We are working very hard with the telecommunications companies, all of them Telkom, Vodacom, MTN and Cell-C, to try and understand how we could ensure that students who had need of it could access zero-rated data to access the university sites from where there are but those negotiations are still ongoing,” he said. 

Additional stakeholders were also being engaged to explore additional support for universities through digital infrastructure development and additional funding to support capacity building.

Bawa, who serves on the Department of Higher Education and Training COVID-19 departmental task team, added that USAf was working to ensure the academic year was completed.

The USAf board of directors said they recognised that even if teaching and learning could resume online, it left unanswered questions regarding laboratory and contact-based research and post-graduate programmes. 

“Answers would be sought at meetings of Deputy Vice-Chancellors: Academic and Research to discuss continuity plans and any immediate inherent challenges,” the USAf board said.

The vice-chancellors also raised financial concerns related to the possible drop in tuition fees income due to the lockdown. 

“In mitigation of all the associated risks (also relating to NSFAS funding of residences) USAf would convene a meeting of members of the Finance Executive Forum and the Funding Strategy Group to discuss both short and long term financial sustainability implications of the pandemic,” the board said. 

@Chulu_M

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