A blended and vaccinated future for universities

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted universities after many had to innovate on how to continue with the academic year during various lockdowns. Blended and online learning – and now vaccine passports – have become key phrases.

This week academics and leaders discussed how only strong leadership will allow institutions of higher learning to use these disruptions as an opportunity for the country to advance.

Former University of Johannesburg (UJ) vice-chancellor Professor Ihron Rensburg praised institutions of higher education for responding to the challenges presented by the pandemic. He was speaking at a panel discussion organised by the UJ and the OR Tambo School of Leadership titled Leadership in the Time of the Covid-19 Crisis on Wednesday 8 September. 

Rensburg addressed the varying challenges, including how formerly black and disadvantaged universities didn’t have enough resources to quickly adapt to online learning, noting that for institutions such as UJ it was easier as they had already been experimenting with online and blended learning.

Last year universities made large-scale data purchases for all students. A drive to get hardware and software to students was initiated by various institutions. The University of Fort Hare, for instance, purchased more than 6 000 laptops worth R40-million for students who did not have their own.

Two months ago Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said that the department was working together with the South African Public Colleges Organisation to finalise negotiations with mobile network operators for the zero-rated data for both students and staff. 

“We need a more radical approach. Varsities should also take it upon themselves to play in those spaces of being able to regulate communication channels like the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. For example, why does South Africa still have to import laptops and tablets from other countries? These are essential questions leaders should ask themselves,” he added.

Rensburg argued that each disruption should be used as an opportunity to advance. 

UJ professor of sociology Ashwin Desai said the biggest challenge currently was leadership. 

“Those who think they can plot a straight line out of this situation are lying. Covid-19 has shown us that our social relationships are going to change. We are dealing with second-hand information and big data. In our debates we must produce critical imagination. We must produce new knowledge and definitely new ways of seeing things.

“Already many ANC leaders were against the basic income grant at some point. They are now reconsidering it. So this says a lot about the character of the leadership we have,” said Desai.

On the issue of making vaccinations compulsory for universities in order to ensure a speedy return to learning, Desai said he is of the view that enforcing the vaccine for university students and staff could help institutions of higher learning get back to normal quicker.

UJ’s vice-chancellor Tshilidzi Makwarela echoed Rensburg’s argument and said that it is going to be challenging to teach a new breed of leaders during a pandemic.

“To be a leader it’s not just about taking up a position. You need someone with the right charisma and the elements that will make the world sit up. You need specific traits.

The ability to steer through waters is very important. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still.”

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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