The debate in mid-March between university management and student representatives regarding the release of students from university accommodation in light of the Covid-19 outbreak has proven to be scientifically valid.
The design of student accommodation in our residential universities was conceptualised with massification and limited resources in mind. The 2011 Ministerial Task Team Report on Student Housing revealed that student accommodation in South Africa is geared towards housing as many undergraduate students as possible in the least available land space as possible. As a result, our post-1994 student accommodation properties are high-rise buildings accommodating as many as 1000 students in a single property. Undoubtedly, a single Covid-19 infection in one student under such conditions would have yielded a complete outbreak by the end of a week and plunged the university system into a complete crisis.
The arguments from the student leadership were also, to a degree, valid. They were correct to raise the injustices of South African communities that students come from which would make it almost impossible for them to have a fair and just learning experience if teaching was to be switched to online platforms.
For instance, at the beginning of the year, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande in his budget vote address to Parliament stated that for the 2020 academic year, more than 50% of students enrolled in our entire higher education system come from poor households. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is now responsible for most of the fees revenue that universities and vocational colleges receive, and basic student life utilities such as transport, stationery, meals and textbooks are settled by government for each of those students.
In other words, the face of higher education in South Africa is a poor, black working-class young person who comes from the townships and villages of this country — a positive indicator of equitable demographic changes in the transformation efforts of our democratic epoch.
But here are three problems that Covid-19 is bringing to these developments:
• South African townships and villages do not have the basic infrastructure that students need to function. In addition, most households and communities are not conducive spaces for a fulfilling learning experience.
• South African universities were conceptualised as residential institutions which utilise traditional teaching and learning contact.
• Even with the technological advancements and innovations that our universities have scored thus far, they still require their undergraduate cohort of students to be physically hosted in the campus residential precinct to utilise them.
Put differently, no technological shortcut has managed to sweep our country’s socioeconomic inequalities under the carpet.
Universities know this. Under normal conditions, multi-campus universities with over 15000 students tend to have a high concentration of underprivileged students residing in off-campus residences.
Facilitating a seamless teaching and learning experience for such students has been a struggle and as a result universities dig further into their own resources to subsidise their own daily shuttle transportation service, city-wide student WiFi service and flexible NSFAS administrative allowances systems that allow off-campus students to purchase in retail stores and also draw cash from their bank accounts to finance their emergencies. These efforts show that even before the Covid-19 outbreak, running a fair and just university system without having a 100% on-campus student population was a nightmare.
These structural issues are the apex questions facing the post-apartheid South African university — they go to the core of its historical conceptualisation and geographic location, including its contemporary existence and sociopolitical legitimacy.
But the primary question remains of how Covid-19 will affect students currently located in rural township homes and what the way forward is.
A short-term plan
All available teaching and learning methods must be utilised to flexibly accommodate students from all backgrounds to complete the 2020 academic year. This involves the drastic changing of assessment deadlines and assessment methods without compromising learning outcomes and quality.
In the humanities faculty where I am based, I recommend a sacrifice of undergraduate examinations and tests for critical academic, conversational and reflective essay writing — which is what humanities should be about. Submission methods should be flexible — varying between online methods for those who can afford to and traditional methods for others. In some instances, this would require the adjustment of deadlines to accommodate those who might only be able to see their emails when the university hopefully reopens in the second semester.
These students should still be allowed to do their assessments and submit them within the academic year — this includes using the upcoming university holidays and the supplementary examination period to “push” them to complete their assessments. Under these conditions, student representation and labour representation should be heard and considered including campus social support services — counselling services, campus clinic, hotline reporting mechanisms, etc.
This would work best if all our universities and vocational colleges could have an equally standardised approach to this question as a sector and not seek to liberally compete with each other on who should be publicly perceived as the greatest champion of human rights in the media.
A long-term plan
We should look to reconfigure residential universities by taking their future status seriously as new generation student community institutions where student life is diversified as a traditional and digital strategy. Universities must rethink ways of maximising output from their available resources by prioritising innovation on some of their core functions and support services, thereby cutting the waste that comes with relying on traditional bloated administrations.
Furthermore, universities must practise their community engagement theories by dethroning their ivory tower view and actively participate in a renewed effort to address social inequalities, hold those in public office and private enterprise to account, and make education infrastructure a basic human right across all our communities. They must be active agents in the operationalisation of urban neighbourhood renewal and local government in the rural towns and cities where they are located.
Our universities and vocational colleges must enrol new undergraduates from our basic education system and also graduate skilled labour into the economy annually. This public responsibility must be upheld and vigorously pursued especially in light of our economy that is heading for mass retrenchments and increased unemployment rates due to Covid-19. These negative trends will affect new young graduates the most. In this regard, to work towards the responsible completion of the academic year is a national emergency that we must collectively carry out in the academy.
Pedro Mzileni is a PhD sociology candidate at Nelson Mandela University. He writes in his personal capacity