The minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, on Wednesday gave an all clear that universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges can return students to 100% attendance. Under alert level 2 only 66% of students were allowed on campuses.
Nzimande said the return to full functionality of the tertiary sector follows the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa to move the country to alert level 1. “We took note and took to heart the call by president and leading clinical experts that while the rate of infections has slowed, however with greater liberty in the movement of people, there remains greater possibilities of community based or regional spikes of Covid 19 in the foreseeable future,” said Nzimande.
He said the 100% return will include foreign students who are currently outside the borders of South Africa. However, he said the foreign students will have to abide by the prescribed Covid 19 related health protocols.
Nzimande added that the tertiary institutions will implement their own plans to return all students and staff “subject to any restrictions linked to their own risk assessment due to the local contexts and conditions”.
Regarding the students residences, Nzimande said institutions will move to 50% occupancy of rooms which means that up to a maximum of 250 persons will be allowed indoors at a time with ventilation of rooms remaining critical.
He said the most recent monitoring report indicates that the total number of Covid 19 infections reported so far at the tertiary sector stands at 1 979 – 1 215 being staff and 764 students. He added that 245 652 students have been issued with permits to come on campuses for teaching and learning and research purposes, which amounts to around 40% of the contact student population.
Nzimande also shared the number of deaths at both universities and colleges due to the Covid 19. He said by the 22 September 2020, 89 members lost their lives in the public higher education community. Of these, he said, 53 were from universities – 44 staff and nine students. The TVET sector has lost 36 members, 11 being students and 25 staff members.
He also gave an assurance that currently there is no institution that falls under the high risk level. He said he had one-on-one engagements with institutions that were on high and medium risk levels. The picture has changed positively, he said, with only seven institutions in the medium risk category and 19 of them at low-risk level. “Currently, no institution remains at high-risk level, which means there is progress,” said Nzimande.
In terms of the completion of the 2020 academic year, 10 institutions aim to complete the academic year before the end of the 2020, he said. Four are planning to finish in January 2021, seven will complete the academic year in February 2021 while five aim to conclude their academic programme in March 2021, he said. “This staggered approach is linked to the ability of the institutions to support students and ensure all students have been afforded a reasonable opportunity to succeed,” said Nzimande.
Putting his science and innovation hat, Nzimande said the DHET and its entities are “active participant in the health ministerial advisory committee which is looking at the manufacturing the Covid 19 vaccine as and when it is found”.
He said they have made some interventions aimed at supporting the tertiary public education sector. Some of the measures include connecting all the 320 plus TVET college campuses to the South African Research Network. According to Nzimande, this connection allows access to connectivity, optimisation and other services including post-schooling infrastructure, data accessibility, monitoring and provision particularly used for working off-campus.
Nzimande said the start of the new academic year for the first-year students will be staggered between 8 March 2021 and 12 April 2021, adding “we are really in a tight situation to finish this current academic year”. He appealed to students and staff to make every minute count.