The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping all scopes of life, including higher education. Its impact dictates how we interact with others, transforming how we socialise and care about one another, restructuring business and the economy, and altering how we think about sustaining our world. The pandemic has forced the global academy to question what it means to be a university, to reconsider its role in society and its relationship with other social actors. Universities and colleges have been forced to switch to remote learning. Many were unprepared for this move, termed emergency remote teaching and learning. The impact on learners and educators themselves, as well as on their families, has been equally far-reaching and, for many, highly distressing.
The pandemic has forced the institutions to open up education policy and practice to new possibilities since higher education sectors are an essential source of analysis and critique and of new ideas and innovation. It is now just more than a year from the initial lockdown in South Africa, and high education institutions have adopted some form of hybrid learning approach t. They are attempting to combine face-to-face and online instruction into a single, seamless experience. This situation is reshaping the high education sector as it is likely to remain the status quo for some time because the distribution and actual vaccination has been slow in the country.
Hybrid models delivery
The responses to the pandemic had highlighted the benefits of developing ‘hybrid’ models for teaching and research, as well as the relative advantages of the online and offline worlds as sites for education. Nevertheless, remote teaching and learning is not that easy in a country where a number of the population does not have access to the internet, surrounded by poor connectivity, frequent power interruptions and exorbitant costs.
To encounter the online challenges, several higher learning institutions in South Africa have entered into a partnership with internet providers and governments by negotiating zero-rated access to specific educational and information websites. In addition, some universities are offering data bundles to their students and staff. Studies confirm that many institutions have taken alternative means and approaches in order not to leave behind students with little or no access to electronic communication. These include pre-recorded lectures on these zero-rated e-learning platforms, among others. Reaching out to millions of marginalised students have become a higher learning institution priority in this time of crisis.
Looking on the bright side, many institutions have developed a comprehensive plan and a rigorous follow-up scheme to ensure that academics and students make proper use of digital platforms. Educators are leveraging on content available online from other institutions to complement their own like never before. Learners who could previously not afford the cost associated with in-person sessions would now have access to complete modules for programmes online and at a reduced cost. In some cases, with a few face-to-face sessions over the programme duration.
Diversified means of educational delivery, in particular a non-residential model, may become more mainstream, more acceptable and more respectable. The online era allows educators to join online professional learning communities to pursue in-service career training to stay in touch with the trends, share tips and best practices to achieve the goal of an evolved and high-quality standard of education. Instructors can invite colleague educators from another university to deliver a guest lecture to their students. Further, online learning would foster greater societal embeddedness and transdisciplinarity, produce more democratic access to knowledge and forge new kinds of closeness.
However, there is recognition that online learning might produce adverse outcomes also. It could produce a number of dystopian effects, including the commodification and dehumanisation of knowledge and pedagogy. It is feared that divorced from the physical reality of campus life; students might increasingly retreat into private ‘echo chambers’ at home. And that the experience of the university could end up being reduced to no more than a file on a computer.
Most of the less well-resourced public and private higher learning institutions are struggling to adapt to the economic damage produced as a result of the pandemic. An avalanche of activity and concern have been reported on implications of the Covid 19 lockdown and the projected impacts of the associated economic downturn for institutions, educators and for students. Funders have reduced the size of their endowments and, therefore, their grants. Some have prioritised their local communities when providing immediate relief. There have been cuts in many higher institution budgets, and some students indicate that they are not planning to start the next university year. Students are demanding fee rebates for studies online instead of face-to-face, while other institutions offer students free tuition for the current term.
Contract and casual staff have been losing jobs in several locations so far, and Job conditions are changing for all staff, often in the form of unpaid leave. A high level of staff lay-offs in the wake of COVID-19 had highlighted the extent to which casual employment and exploitation of PhD students had become commonplace in the sector. Fractional appointments, under which staff may be employed on a permanent part-time basis by some universities at once, maybe a way forward, allowing staff to pursue their academic interests without being overloaded with teaching responsibilities.
Cost recovery through a financial contribution from beneficiaries in the form of fees or loan repayments will not be easy in the aftermath of the pandemic since economies will have seriously declined if they indeed survive a total collapse. The expansion of public universities will be abruptly frozen. Private providers, which are dependent on tuition and other fees, will also be hard hit, with many facing downsizing or even closure, as they receive little or no support from governments.
Affirmatively, Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, argued that new ways of online teaching could release human capacity by allowing lecturers to manage their course loads more efficiently. Furthermore, if they make it possible to increase the number of students who can enrol in specific courses, they could bring more income to the institution to help finance human capacity or infrastructure development.
The pandemic has redistributed the knowledge economy so that students can be sitting in a virtual class with students from other universities, and academics from two universities can co-teach a course from entirely different locations. The use of space and time has been reshaped fundamentally. This providing at once an opportunity for African universities to leverage their epistemic and physical location to advance and strengthen the knowledge project of the global academy.
The pandemic has shifted institutional attention away from the international university rankings as a measure of performance. It has highlighted the importance of universities to produce research of actual social value, such as that which has informed the medical responses to the pandemic and communicating the value of such contributions more widely among the public. If the crisis persists, it may seriously impact the commitment of governments toward higher education in the face of competing demands from the healthcare, business and other priority sectors serving vulnerable segments of society. Further, global support to higher education, research collaborations and partnership schemes, most often directed at critical areas such as strengthening PhD programmes, could be massively scaled back. This will affect the number of production of research in the institutions hence shaking their ranking.
The higher education sector in South Africa was already in a crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic due to profound inequalities which have been shaped and exacerbated by the austerity and marketisation that has deeply troubled the sector. Simultaneously there have been strikes and protests by students and employees in higher education to complain about numerous failings in the system, including exclusion, rapid casualisation of academic labour and increasingly onerous conditions of service. So with Covid 19, the battle has been to save the academic year, save lives and save life chances as the academic project has faltered beyond its already frail condition.
The online learning shift would inevitably play out differently across the higher learning sector, the variety of institutional kinds categorised in different ways: rural and urban, old and new, historically Advantaged Institutions and historically disadvantaged Institutions, and ‘research-intensive, ‘comprehensive’ and ‘universities of technology. This was well explained by Prof. Adam Habib, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of the Witwatersrand, that “South African universities have similar problems to other institutions across the world but the big distinction with South Africa is that we are undertaking these activities in the midst of deep inequalities.”
The current crisis has made it possible to recognise the historical, geospatial, economic inequalities of the country and the world students live in. In a certain sense, the pandemic and the pivoting to online made visible the invisible or ignored manifestations and mechanisms of inequality. Reports signify that the higher learning sector in South Africa is characterised by low participation and high attrition, with students from higher socioeconomic groups more likely to be eligible for university entrance and white students more likely than black students to succeed. With university success improving life chances, the immediate fear is that the shift to online learning will undermine prospects of success. Especially in residential institutions with onsite residences, computer laboratories and Wi-Fi, it is possible for existing differences of background to be covert.
The lockdown has forced the lecturers to look much closer to where the students are, where they are positioned, what resources they have, what opportunities to engage in teaching and learning. Lectures account that they cannot unsee these differences, whether on or off-campus. Enforced visibility places a renewed focus on contextual realities and students’ lived experiences. It forces the lectures to critically consider aspects conducive for teaching and learning without contributing to new forms of digital exclusion. It is high time for higher learning institutions to come up with strategies to enhance the success of all students, especially those who are facing socio-economic challenges. On the positive side, the pandemic has made the higher learning institutions that despised remote and distance education and looked down on online learning suddenly embraced online, remote, and distance learning as if they were long lost cousins, albeit from the more inferior side of the family.
Prioritise learners’ welfare
The pandemic is hurting learners mental health badly also. For many higher learning students, the campus is not just where they go to learn. It also provides a space for relationships that helps them to form virtual networks and alliances that evolve and extend beyond their university education. Many higher learning institutions did not afford to ignore the impact of the pandemic on students’ health and well-being. They are now focusing on prioritising university students’ welfare after being found that most undergraduates, full-time learners, and female students were especially vulnerable at home while learning online due to the pandemic.
Given South Africa’s gender-based violence crisis, stay-at-home learning has exposed many young women students to challenging and dangerous situations. Researchers pinpointed seven challenges that hindered students’ ability to learn online during the COVID-19 era, internet connection, mental health, personal ability, time management, being easily distracted, family members, making studying difficult, and interaction between lecturers and students. A long-term strategy to support the well-being of higher education students as they transition through this pandemic must be created.
All in all, Covid 19 has shown that the most powerful and positive impact on education is the digital transformation of the educational sector. The agility of many institutions and governments, significantly to quickly move learning modules online and to dedicated mass media channels, is admirable. Working remotely has exposed that universities are high-pressure environments for all. Online platforms are the future, but technology needs to be available cheaply, and it should be widely accessible.
Dr. Norah Hashim Msuya is an academician and researcher. She writes in her personal capacity.