Universities gear up to welcome more students on campus - but online classes still the new normal for many

The University of Witwatersrand.
The University of Witwatersrand.
Sharon Seretlo, Gallo Images
  • From 1 September higher education institutions are allowed to have 66% of the student population on campus.
  • Some institutions are already in the process of welcoming additional students, although they are still cautious.
  • Universities say online classes have been going well and UJ has indicated that online attendance is even better than attendance for contact classes. 

Although they are allowed to have up to 66% of the student population back at campuses during the Level 2 lockdown, higher education institutions say they are still being cautious and intend to continue with online learning where necessary. 

Last week, Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande announced that from 1 September, institutions could phase in 33% of students in addition to the 33% who returned under the Level 3 lockdown.

On Tuesday News24 asked six institutions - the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Johannesburg (UJ), University of Pretoria (UP), University of Fort Hare (UFH), University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) - for insight into their plans to phase in more students. 

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Although some students, including those in their final year, in health sciences and those requiring laboratories for experiments, had already returned to campus for contact classes, some universities, such as Wits, say they continued to use online teaching and learning as far as possible. 

READ | Covid-19: First-year students to return to university under Level 2

Wits said some faculties would carefully invite selected cohorts of students to return to campuses and participate in contact and online classes to ensure it complied with Covid-19 regulations and health and safety protocols.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the university had about 80% attendance for online classes from April to the end of August.

Students who were unable to study from home for various reasons may be brought back to residences on social justice grounds.

Patel said:

A revised almanac has been circulated – the majority of students will complete the academic year in 2020. For those who cannot complete by December, the calendar has been extended into 2021 to ensure that all students are accommodated. Additional bootcamps and study support programmes will be run to ensure that students [finish].

Meanwhile, UJ said it would prioritise final-year students and those who need to be on campus to complete aspects of their programmes which they can't do online.

ALSO READ | Higher education academic year for 2021 set for March and April, says Nzimande

UJ spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said all eligible students who qualified to return during the second phasing-in period, received letters notifying them to return, and permits for campus access were issued to them. 

Improved first semester pass rate

"Furthermore, and subject to availability of places within the 66% limit, the university accommodates additional groups of vulnerable students, particularly those in need of ease of access to connectivity or living in circumstances where studying is difficult," Esterhuizen said. 

The university said the majority of its undergraduate students had also embraced the online learning platforms, with attendance even better than that of contact classes. 

As a result, the pass rate for undergraduate students during the first semester increased to 86.3% from 84.7% last year, Esterhuizen said. 

OPINION | 2020 matric: The lost year

He added that the institution was likely to complete the academic year as planned.

"However, the start for the 2021 academic year might be affected with the recent news that higher education institutions will most likely only receive the final Grade 12 results late in February 2021, instead of the first week of January," he said. 

Connectivity challenges

UFH was also in the process of issuing permits to the additional cohort of students, spokesperson Tandi Mapukata said. 

She said the institution complied with guidelines the department set and continued to adjust its systems to accommodate the required number of staff and students on campus. 

Referring to online learning, Mapukata said:

Those [students] without connectivity problems have been engaging with remote teaching and learning programmes offered through a number of virtual channels (Blackboard, WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom, etc).

"Unfortunately others who reside in areas that experience frequent disruptions or generally poor network or electricity connectivity have not been able to participate fully.  

"The university is in the process of enabling the latter group by providing laptops,  modems, flash discs as well as monthly data allocations and printed reading material."

University of Pretoria, however, will not have any contact classes and will continue classes online. "While the increase in numbers is welcomed, the regulations, which prohibit the gathering of more than 50 people, unfortunately mean that we remain unable to resume contact classes, so we will therefore continue with online classes for the second semester," spokesperson Rikus Delport said. 

Delport added that students who, however, require access to laboratories and other on-campus facilities will be prioritised and will be invited by their respective faculties. 

READ | Stellenbosch University to offer academic and psychosocial support to students

He said students experiencing internet connectivity issues and those from homes that were not conducive to learning and studying would be allowed to use the facilities for WiFi access to take part in online classes. 

"We will continue with online classes for the second semester which ends on 13 November. At this stage, we are on track to complete the academic year on 12 December 2020," Delport said.

At the time of publication, TUT and UKZN had not responded to written requests for comment.

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