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.

The uncomfortable truth about finances and academia

Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.