Universities can decide which students return to campus, even if they are not in their final year

Universities have been given a lifeline: they are now allowed to decide on the categories of students who can return to campus, provided that total on-campus student numbers do not exceed the maximum the government allows. 

Last month, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced that under the level three lockdown a maximum of 33% of the student population will be allowed to return to campuses and residences. He said these students would include — among others — final-year students who need laboratories, those due to graduate this year and students who are doing clinical training. 

Final-year medical students returned to campus during level four of the lockdown. 

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Nzimande announced that the department had made provisions for universities to allow other categories of students who are battling to study at home to return to campus, but that the priority must still be students the department has given the go-ahead to return to campus. 

“I would like to emphasise that we recognise that some institutions may identify other groups of students, in line with their particular contexts, for their return to campus. However, any deviation from this criterion must be approved by my department and must fall within the maximum of 33% of the student population,” said Nzimande. 

The minister — who earlier on Tuesday visited the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) to check  its readiness  — said he was impressed by what he had found at the institution. 

TUT had reprioritised its funding for Covid-19-related measures and repurposed its chemical engineering laboratories to produce sanitisers and disinfectants for the university, as well as to supply surrounding communities, said Nzimande. 

He added: “I am happy with the progress I saw there.”

The chief executive of Higher Health — an agency of the department of higher education — Ramneek Ahluwalia, said the agency had already trained campus Covid-19 task teams how to operate in a coronavirus environment in anticipation of the students returning to campus. 

“We have been able to see how … every campus is trying its best to put every system [in place] from screening booths [and] cleaning protocols, right up to how a day ends; from putting physical distanc[ing] [and] security training [in place] to every parameter going forward,” he said. 

Mental health guidelines

Ahluwalla said the agency has also launched guidelines on mental health to all institutions, because it understands that many students and staff will be mentally affected by the virus. 

He said nurses at a campus healthcare facilities have been trained in addressing mental health, and that the aim is to deal with mental health issues at a primary healthcare level before it is escalated to tertiary and secondary levels, which include clinical psychology. 

Nzimande also added that students who will not be returning to campus will continue with remote learning. 

He said by the end of this week the department — through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) — will begin the procurement of laptops for students funded by the scheme to assist them with online learning. 

“We are also finalising the process of verifying which Nsfas students already have acquired devices, to avoid mistakenly issuing some students with more than one device. We urge for patience from both parents, staff and students,” he said. 

Several institutions already issued their students with laptops when they moved to online learning after the closure of campuses. 

Nsfas-funded students will also receive 30GB of data for three months, beginning this month. 

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

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