OPINION: How Covid-19 will affect learning and teaching at tertiary institutions


The recent posture of South African university management of distributing devices at a large scale is welcomed; but it is also going to exhibit the inequalities in the sector.

I have been very fortunate to escape the draconian might of our universities that eject eagerly-eyed students before they can even write their first examinations.

In the five years that I spent in the belly of the beast I have witnessed hordes of students coming from different parts of the country allured by the beautiful smiles in our prospectuses only to be disappointed in the very first week of their arrival.

It does not take long for one to notice that our universities are the epicentre of contradictions in South African society.

Our universities were built only to accommodate sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie class that also happens to be racialised in the context of our country that has been through centuries of colonialisation.

The student-labour movement has long called for the transformation of this sector from the 1920s to the present day.

In that period; thousands of students have sacrificed their academics to protest the endemic conditions that make it nearly impossible for students that come from working-class backgrounds to succeed in their studies.

There has been numerous breakthroughs and setbacks - with the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests being the biggest success.

Tears, sweat and bullet wounds of that generation were healed by the 2017 announcement of free education and the subsequent in-sourcing of workers.

The announcement of free education as much as it was a victory it did very little to solve the crisis of accommodation (a result of massification of education) and the methods of learning and teaching.

It is those unresolved questions that will come to bite our universities during the pandemic and give our Vice-Chancellors the biggest and most horrible nightmares.

Since the 1994 democratic dispensation millions of students have heeded the call that is enshrined in the Freedom Charter "the doors of learning shall be open".

Historically white universities such as University of Port Elizabeth and others started accepting black students in large numbers with very little residences built to accommodate the large numbers.

Fast forward to 2020; we have more students living in accredited private accommodation off-campus than we have students in our on-campus residences. 

The large demand for beds has exposed our universities to bloodthirsty cartels that have preyed on the desperation of universities.

This has resulted in universities accrediting low-standard accommodation that are a far-cry to those that can be found on-campus.

Regular water-leaks, communal kitchens among other structural discrepancies will make it very hard for students to be safely accommodated during the pandemic. 

If these issues were not going to affect the poor I would have said that the student movement is vindicated but these unresolved issues are going to affect us more than they will affect those with access to the factors of production.

Leaders of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) and the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) have been chanting "One Student One Computer" on top of their lungs for decades.

The recent posture of South African university management of distributing devices at a large scale is welcomed; but it is also going to exhibit the inequalities in the sector.

There are reports (depending on the source) that some universities do not have the capacity to conduct online learning and it does not need a forensic study to know which universities are going to struggle.

In South Africa even though the country is said to be approaching/or in the Fourth Industrial Revolution there are still universities that have visibly struggled with online applications for years and therefore it is being unrealistic to expect them to be able to quickly correct their systems in a month or two and be on the same level with those that have been technologically advanced for years.

As much as other issues such as the learning environment of students that may not be conducive to learning may not be solved by our universities in the short-term.

Through curriculum reform they can play a vital role in the transformation of our communities by being centres where solutions that shape society are created.

As bleak as this moment it is. It is also an opportunity for our universities to self-correct.

- Asemahle Gwala, MA (Political Science) Candidate at Nelson Mandela University 

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