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Student drops out as tech access issues hinder his learning

Senzo Mkhize was in the middle of writing a test when he lost network coverage. He attempted to log back on to the online platform to finish his test, but it would not allow him to.

He got 15 out 100 for that test.

“The network coverage here is so poor that sometimes I have to go up the mountain just to have a better signal,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

But this is not Mkhize’s only struggle. He did not have money for data for online learning. His mother, the only breadwinner in the household, did not make money during the lockdown because she is self-employed.

On days when Mkhize did have data he would log on to the online learning system only to establish that there was a test that was going to be written the next day or that an assignment was due.

All of this left the fourth-year B.Ed student at the University of Zululand discouraged, and it  forced him to take a difficult decision.

Mkhize deregistered from his course last month. “It was not an easy decision to make but conditions were dictating otherwise,” he says.

Mkhize was not writing tests or submitting assignments and he figured that it would be better to continue with his studies next year. “To tell you the truth, I was really struggling,” says Mkhize, from Empangeni. He says although his family was not happy with this decision, they supported it because they saw what he was going through.

In April, UniZulu announced that it had negotiated zero-rated data with MTN, Telkom and Cell C in so its students could access teaching and learning on its online platform without incurring data costs.

But Mkhize uses Vodacom, so he missed out. In any case, this would not have addressed his problem with the network coverage. He says it took him time to arrive at his decision because he had hoped for an announcement to allow students who were battling to study at home to return to campus.

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande made that announcement last month; on Monday he published directions for the phased-in return of students to campuses.

As of June 1, under level three, higher education institutions are allowed to have 33% of their students return to campus. These students comprise mainly final-year students, those who need laboratories, and all students needing clinical training.

The return to campus came a little too late for students like Mkhize. Although he was a final-year student, he says he was so far behind with his studies that he did not see the possibility of passing.

None of the universities have yet said when the level-three category of students will be back on campus.

However, in the gazette, Nzimande said the institutions need to consider a number of factors, because they allow for the phased-in return of staff and students to campus and residences.

Only staff and students who have received communication from their institution that can return to campus and residences. They will be issued with permits by the institutions.

The directions say that all first-year students in undergraduate programmes will return to campus in level two while the rest of the student population will be back in level one.

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

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