Getting a postgraduate qualification is challenging, but the end results are exciting

“We” look like we have it all under control. But postgraduate studies are hard and at times frustrating. You would think we have it all planned-out. That is not true. The process of getting a postgraduate degree is tiring, circuitous, hard and at times a little depressing. Choosing topics, writing proposals, approaching prospective supervisors, choosing institutions and applying for funding… it is just a lot.  We are forever hopeful that it will get better after completing a certain degree, but it never does. It feels like the higher you go the ‘crazier’ it becomes.  When I completed my Honours, I though it will be easy to get into a Masters programme with funding but it was never like that, I struggled for a while without any funding. I only got funding towards the end of my first year of Masters.

I am saying all this in relation to my plans to enrol for a PhD. These are plans which have been in motion ever since I got my Masters. According to my timeline, by now I was supposed to have already been registered and progressing through my PhD, but it is only now that my registration processes are about to be concluded. There is still a question of funding, which is a headache. I realised during my Masters that pursing a post-graduate degree without stable funding can take its toll on a student. You worry simultaneously on your research and your finances – how to pay for accommodation, fees and your everyday upkeep. Its stressful and I hope to never go through that pain again.

I honestly think these factors and all the others we often also shy away from should be talked about more openly, not to scare prospective student away but to give them a heads-up. Often, post-graduate students struggle, especially financially, and this affects all the aspects of the student’s life.  We do say that completing a postgraduate qualification is difficult, but usually we only focus on the actual research, the dissertation that we must write, and not the financial implications of being a postgraduate level students. These two are inseparable. We must talk about them as one.

In all honesty, completing a post-graduate degrees takes a lot of courage, will, determination and passion for research. But of course, with all these ups and downs and all of that, there are those of us who never think about giving up. I guess this is the will and determination I am talking about. Getting the qualification, against all odds. I am the first in my family to get a Master’s degree and I have seen how it has brightened up those around me and have given them hope and a reason to go to university, and I am not going to stop until I get my PhD. Despite the many challenges that come with pursuing a postgraduate qualification, I want to be counted among the strong and brave, the go-getters and the intellectuals. I want a PhD and I am going to get it. Do not get me wrong, this is a two-sided coin. There are exciting and thrilling moments too.

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.