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Some varsities are out of touch with students’ reality

After President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday the measures being taken to minimise the spread of Covid-19, numerous institutions announced the suspension of their academic activities, while others waited for a call by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.

On Tuesday, Nzimande announced the closure of all higher education institutions as of Wednesday until April 15.

Ramaphosa said : “Never before in the history of our democracy has our country been confronted with such a severe situation.”

Many people are scared; they have never been here before. And even though the government has emphasised for the country not to panic, people are panicking. It is human nature to panic when you are dealing with unfamiliar territory.

The panic is palpable. You see it in people stocking up on toilet paper as if someone whispered to them something the rest of the country does not know.

During a state of panic people do not make sober, considered decisions.

Perhaps this has been evident in how some of our universities have dealt with the news of the new coronavirus in the country.

Some of it has been insensitive and shows that some of the people leading our higher education institutions are not in touch with the realities of their students.

Shortly after the president announced the steps to minimise the risk of people getting Covid-19, the Nelson Mandela University, my alma mater, tweeted: “Please note that the president’s announcement on Sunday evening that gatherings of more than 100 people will be prohibited applies to public gatherings and not to academic activities.”

This was an insensitive and, to a large extent, irresponsible message at a time when the country is grappling with a pandemic. To say academic activities will continue as normal is to act as if lecture halls do not, sometimes, have 100 or more students in them.

By Monday, sanity had prevailed at my alma mater and it announced that it had suspended academic activities.

In suspending their classes, some universities — even before the call by Nzimande — expected students to vacate their residences within a day or two after announcing the suspension.

This caused a lot of distress to many parents and guardians, including myself. My younger brother is a student at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, which wants students to be out of residences by Friday.

In the years that he has been studying there, he does not come home for short recesses, such as Easter holidays. So we do not budget for his travelling costs.

It is in the middle of the month and I only get paid at the end of March, but now I have to find money to make sure that he comes back home.

The approach by the institutions who have told students to leave fails to factor in the realities on the ground. It could be that I will be able to raise money for my brother to come home. But it might not be easy for an unemployed parent living in Mount Fletcher in the Eastern Cape, who has a child studying in Cape Town, to raise about R1000 for the student to travel back home. And what about the grandmother in Ga-Matlala in Limpopo, who is the sole breadwinner and waiting for April 1 to get her social grant? Where is she supposed to get money to send to her grandson, who has to vacate his room at a university in Gauteng?

The institutions have said that closing residences is a precautionary measure to ensure that Covid-19 does not spread among the students. For them the large number of students staying in residences and in close proximity poses a high risk of spreading the virus.

But other institutions have presented other options to students who are unable to travel home. As opposed to just telling them to leave, they have said that students who are unable to go home, for whatever reason, must speak to the heads of the residences and a plan will be made for them. This is a more sensible and empathetic attitude.

The reality of the matter is that the majority of students at our higher education institutions come from poor households. We must not forget, even during this pandemic, that we live in an unequal society, and that not every child can catch a flight or call their parents to pick them up from the university.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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