A small number of students can return to university, but some choose not to

Not all students who are allowed to go back to university under level 3 of the Covid-19 regulations have returned. Some of those who did, went only to fetch their belongings from their residences. 

A notice published in the Government Gazette by Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande last month said 33% of students could return to campus under level 3. 

Under level 4, medical students and those students requiring clinical training were allowed on campus. 

All students will be able to return under level 1.

The Mail & Guardian sent questions to 25 higher education institutions — except the long-distance university, Unisa. 


University of Pretoria spokesperson, Rikus Delport, said 5 600 students were allowed on campus but many chose to stay away. Some returned to write exams and then left again. Others who stay in residences said they would return under level 2 of the regulations.

Even though they have a small number of students on campus, universities have had to put measures in place to ensure that they adhere to the Covid-19 health and safety standards. These include curfews. 

“Some simply arrived to collect personal belongings, after which they left again,” said Delport. “Some students felt that the curfew and restrictions were too limiting.”

The Central University of Technology’s spokesperson, Dan Maritz, said students said they would not come back, even though they had permits, because they were scared of getting Covid-19. 

The university had to disinfect a few buildings and send 40 students and two assistant residence managers into self-quarantine after a student in a residence on its Welkom campus contracted Covid-19. 

Veliswa Mhlophe, the spokesperson for Rhodes University, said 20% of the student population had been given permission to return and most had done so. The others had continued to study from home. She said some of those who had not returned had indicated that they had comorbidities, which make them vulnerable to the virus, and others were outside the country and could not return because of the travel restrictions. 

North-West University’s spokesperson, Louis Jacobs, said the university had invited 12 500 students back to its three campuses; 8 985 accepted the invitation and 1 264 declined it. 

“Many students did not even respond, because they most probably opted to continue with online studies remotely. We have also made it clear that no student is compelled to return, because we are continuing to provide online learning,” said Jacobs, adding that some of the students who had accepted the invitation had used the opportunity to collect study materials and their belongings. 

Normah Zondo, the acting spokesperson at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said 8 650 students could have returned but some chose not to come back and others said they could not come back because they had tested positive for Covid-19 and were in self-isolation. 

University of Johannesburg spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said 80% of the students who were permitted to return are back on campus. He said those didn’t return cited transport issues and fear of being infected with the coronavirus. 

The universities of Venda and Limpopo indicated that all of the students who had been given permits to return to campus were back. 

At Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley only 20 students of those expected back did not return. According to spokesperson Kashini Maistry, the students said they could not do so because of health reasons and others said they feared using public transport.  

The universities said they had put the measures in place to ensure to minimise the risk of the students and staff contracting Covid-19. People are screened daily, students are not allowed to visit each other in their residences and they are given take-away food because they are not allowed to eat in the dining halls. At some universities students have to book a slot to use computer laboratories. Student gatherings are not permitted; they are instead encouraging to use WhatsApp if they want to share information 

The University of Western Cape’s spokesperson, Gasant Abarder, added that designated health and safety staff roam the campus to do random temperature tests and enforce social distancing and the wearing of masks. 

Buhle Zuma, the University of Witwatersrand’s spokesperson, said about 3 000 students are back on campus and that 1 500 are in residences. The students come on campus on a rotational basis with the permission of their deans. She said the university was also using bigger lecturer venues and breaking classes into small groups. 

The Nelson Mandela University is expecting 7 697 back on campus and that so far 5 568 had confirmed they would be returning. Spokesperson Zandile Mbambela said some of the measures the university has put in place include screening stations and that staff and students are encouraged to use a self-screening tool. Mbambela said the results of the screening was shared so that staff and students can get access to the campus, residences and certain venues.

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

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