The realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Higher Education Sector

In early March 2020, the president put the entire country under hard lockdown. This resulted in limited movement and interaction of people outside the home environment. The lockdown disrupted academic calendars and activities of institutions of higher learning in the country, especially for rural-based universities. The decision to close institutions of higher learning was an attempt by the government to curb the spread of the virus and mortality in the country as it was done by other countries across the world.

Despite these continued COVID-19 disruptions and restrictions to normal lives and academic operations, we had to find ways to continue teaching and learning activities to complete the 2020 academic calendar. When this happened I was on the verge of completing my Master of Arts degree by research and I had just been allocated some groups of students to tutor. You can imagine the frustration and confusion. Tutoring has always been done face to face in most universities, especially full-time universities. So, it has never been a challenge to walk into a lecture theatre and present a tutorial on any selected topic.  If anything, it has always been quite an enjoyable process. It is a relaxing two hours outside the library while one is still engaged with academic activities.

However, with the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, I had to go home, my students had to go home, and we had to learn how to teach and learn online. Most of these students, like me, are from the deep rural spaces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. We share similar experiences of signal difficulties when trying to connect to the internet. I personally often have to travel some 20-25km away from my village almost into the town of Tzaneen just to read my email – that’s how bad it gets. However, because the University was making provisions for data as a means of facilitating an eased remote teaching and learning process, it was assumed that we will all connect to various ICT platforms to stay academically engaged. Of course, that was not the reality.

The miscalculation in this equation was that, even though my students had access to enough data, just like me, we did not have the network to connect via any of the online platforms. So it was a struggle. The reality is that being on campus bridges the gap between the have and the have nots because we have similar access to facilities and other resources. However, being home, especially during the lockdown in 2020, proved that there remains a huge gap between us as a society. The inability to connect with my students easily proved that South Africa remains a divided society and that rural spaces are exactly that – rural spaces. This proved ICT inequalities between the urban and the rural spaces, an injustice I deeply feel must be addressed.

My frustrations were not only with my inability to connect with my students but the fact that I also could not swiftly carry on with my research for the same reasons – network. Although I did talk to my research supervisor from time to time on the phone, it was difficult for me to achieve anything tangible because I could not access my chapter corrections in time, nor some of the material he would share with me to enrich my arguments.

Rural universities have a long way to go in their ICT learning integrations. And from what I have observed during the height of the pandemic in 2020, the problem cannot be solved by the Department of Higher Education only. The solutions require a collective approach by the Department of Science and Innovation in collaboration with relevant researchers on Information Communication Technology on rural communities and other key stakeholders.

Post-submission question marks

Question mark made of puzzle pieces | A big question mark ma… | Flickr

A few months ago, and upon submitting my PhD thesis in anthropology, I started hunting for jobs. More accurately, I took a breather before I actually sat down in front of my laptop again with that intention. Letting go of my thesis before taking that step had been an entire process in itself. It meant breaking up with an entire period of being engulfed in writing, living and breathing my subject.

Finding work is not an easy task in these times, as anyone might be able to imagine. Even without Corona – how does one figure out what to do after their postgraduate degree? What am I actually qualified to do and what is it that I want to do? I found myself staring at my screen that was, for the first time in months, not cluttered with open taps and documents, and watched the cursor hovering over an open Google page. It quickly became clear that it was crucial to finally grapple with these questions in order to figure out which platforms would be useful. One may think that I had had plenty of time to figure this out. I’m in my early 30s and have studied in my field for quite some time now. There is often the assumption that starting a postdoc is a decision to commit to academia – for better or worse, until… but does it have to be? – I asked myself. Especially at this juncture, I was harbouring ambiguous feelings about academia, its brand of competitiveness and politics of knowledge production. If ever the was a time to question the assumption of academia and I being an item, it was now. I also had to ponder whether I would be staying on in South Africa. I have been here for 10 years, but am still on a study visa, which makes it difficult to find work. And if I decided to go elsewhere, where would that be, and would my partner be able to find work there?

So what might I do outside of academia? This is by no means an obvious question to answer. Throughout my studies, I remember being repeatedly told that you can do ‘pretty much anything’ with an anthropology degree. This means that anthropologists could be desirable in all kinds of projects that involve a qualitative evaluation of human behaviour in a certain context. But what exactly are these and how do I find them? My previous work in research had sort of just ‘happened’ after replying to an email circulated at the department. Admittedly, I felt a little lost and left alone, especially given the lockdown situation and with campus and its career facilities not being physically accessible. And for an email, my questions seemed too broad and yet too discipline-specific to be directed that way.

After a lot of unfocused googling for keywords like ‘anthropology jobs’ and ‘researcher’, I gravitated towards looking at postdoc positions. At least they would answer the ‘where’ question for me. Also, I love doing extended fieldwork and enjoy analysing and writing. So it could not be that wrong of a choice, I mused. Besides, how sure is anyone ever about what they really want? There seem to be many and, at the same time, very few choices online. Or few that are a good fit and that may be an actual possibility with ongoing global immobilities. Currently, I am still in the process of combing the internet with this somewhat narrower approach but am much more enthusiastic about it. I will keep you in the loop about how it goes.