The minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, officially gave a green light for the re-opening of the universities and Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges during a virtual press briefing this week in Pretoria.
Nzimande said 66% of students will return to campus from September since teaching and learning was significantly downscaled in March this year. Under Level 3 lockdown requirements only 33% of the student population were allowed to return to keep the numbers to manageable levels.
Nzimande said the relaxations of the Covid-19 regulations will also see students, who could not continue with remote learning during the recess due to family circumstances, connectivity challenges and other related challenges return to campus.
He said they have worked out criteria in terms of which categories of students will return under Level 2 lockdown. These categories, Nzimande said, will include: all groups of students identified to return under Level 3 but could not be accommodated due to the maximum campus carrying capacity having been reached will be allowed; students in all years of study who require laboratory and technical equipment to complete the academic year; students in all years of study who require practical placements or experiential learning or work place-based learning to complete the 7 academic year (provided the work places and platforms are open and prepared) and first year students in all undergraduate programmes.
All students who will not be returning to campus will continue to receive support through ‘remote multimodal teaching learning and assessment until they can return to campus’, said Nzimande
Nzimande also stressed that protocols and measures developed to guide the return of students are the outcome of consultations with representatives of all the key stakeholders. These include Universities South Africa USAf, the South African 2 College Principals’ Organisation SACPO Labour unions, the South Africa Student Union SAUS and the Council on Higher Education.
He said each institution has submitted updated readiness plans on how they will integrate their students. However, Nzimande said these will depend on each institution’s context, locality and academic programme plans. “We have also put in place a bi-monthly monitoring process, through which all public institutions are reporting, and which lays the basis for further engagement with the Department where necessary,” said Nzimande.
He said the decision to take a “risk-adjusted strategy for a phased-in return” from Level 3 of the national COVID-19 lockdown, must be seen as complementary to the country’s national initiative to curb the spread of the virus.
Nzimande also shared some statistics on the impact the virus has across the various public institutions. He said 80 members of the public higher education community have succumbed to the virus. Out of these, Nzimande added, 35 were staff and nine students from universities and 36 from TVET Colleges, with 11 students and 25 staff members. He expressed concern that some universities still pose health risks as they do not have adequate capacity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
These are classified as low, medium and high risk institutions. He said the latest report indicates that 14 universities are deemed to be at low risk, six are of medium risk while another six fall under high risk. Nzimande said his department is seriously engaging with the institutions to “secure commitments and actions to lower risks and expedite operational capabilities to ensure successful completion of the 2020 Academic year”.
The other area of concern that Nzimande flagged is that some institutions are lagging behind in terms of completing the 2020 academic year and that this is likely to impact their readiness to commence with studies in 2021.
Said Nzimande: “I have been concerned about the wide range of variation in respect of these two aspects given that they have various kinds of negative implications for the system”. He said that there is a need to strike a balance between enabling these institutions to complete the 2020 academic year with a view to ensuring that the start of the next academic year will not be delayed. Nzimande said he will prioritise assistance to the institutions that are struggling to finish the curriculum to do so by the end of February 2021.
He said he has met with the COVID-19 Ministerial Task Team and Vice-Chancellors to make sure that all the institutions finish the 2020 academic as well as that they are on “a fixed period of starting dates for the opening of the 2021 academic year”. He said the starting dates for the new 2021 academic year will range from 15 March to 15 April 2021.
“The detailed management of these two processes across the system will be communicated by the Department once all the necessary consultations have been completed,” Nzimande added.