Our Covid-19 world: how to reintegrate students into universities

COMMENT

As the post-schooling sector embarks on a phased reintegration of students to campuses and residences across the county as part of the risk-adjusted strategy of government, radical shifts and adaptations in student life will be required.

Covid-19 has imposed unprecedented changes and adaptations to the organisation of human interactions, life and the economy.  Human relationships as we understand them are undergoing rapid modifications. The country and the world have entered a transition period that necessitates a fundamental re-examination of and a radical change in the organisation of human relationships in public life — political, social and economic. 

Given these external conditions inflicted by Covid-19, to what extent are our students conscious of this objective reality? If they are awake to these new circumstances, how ready are they to be guided by their conscience and consciousness in exercising their student life? Pragmatically, what can our students do as individuals and as communities to evince their consciousness of and concomitant response to the disrupted student and social life?

Our experience over the past few months suggests that knowledge about the destructive effects of Covid-19 is no guarantee that everyone will review their behaviour and practise physical distancing, wearing a mask, washing their hands frequently, sanitising, and avoid touching their eyes, mouth and nose among other necessary changes.  

So, what needs to be done to herald requisite shifts and modifications, especially in our institutions of higher learning?


Even though we cannot extricate the post-schooling sector from the prevailing tornado of societal change, a consistent and meaningful educational campaign should be created.  This has been a weakness in our response to Covid-19 as a country.  

Principles and values

At the core of this programme should be education that leads to the correct actions. Its paedagogy must place our students at the centre of their own health and liberation from Covid-19. The following principles and values should underpin this educational campaign:

  • Raise the consciousness of students about the necessity for a united action among themselves as contemporaries against the virus;
  • Inculcate social solidarity among students — act at all material times in the interest of shared development, harmless co-existence and a shared future;
  • Mobilise the student community as individual and collective agents against Covid-19, gender-based violence, substance abuse and other social ills that militate against a thriving and just campus life;
  • Develop student-driven and -oriented programme buttressed on the values of shared responsibility and accountability in enacting and renewing values of community, self-respect, self-reflection and self-discipline; and 
  • Deliver authentic, relevant, succinct and purposeful communication that leads to the change in behaviour — taking meaningful and correct actions. 

The potential of this targeted intervention at our institutions of learning offers a chance to minimise the effects of the virus on the future generation of leaders of our society.  

History calls on them to expend their energies positively in a fight against the invisible enemy, for the sake of meeting their destiny with the future and posterity. The public education programme should be integrated with a focus on other diseases and social problems, such as gender-based violence, substance abuse, HIV, tuberculosis, mental-health issues and so forth. It must also mobilise all students, irrespective of their gender, social class, politics, race religion, or sexual orientation. 

My Mandela Student Brigade

As a response to the necessity for united action from the ground, the student representative council (SRC) at Nelson Mandela University has developed a student-volunteer programme called My Mandela Student Brigade.  

My Mandela Student Brigade is a student-led public education campaign aimed at galvanising university students to enact shifts in their behaviour and social conduct in favour of healthy lifestyles, caring for the health of fellow students, cultivating compassionate human beings, adhering to Covid-19 measures, displaying social cohesion and solidarity, and living and leading creative and dynamic lives. 

It is envisaged that, through this intervention, our students will deepen their understanding and appreciation of humanity and love for life — after all, we are bound by our common humanity. Furthermore, this agency and united action has the potential to heighten the totality of students’ human experience, its indivisibility and indispensability.  Perforce, their experience will not only result in the necessary shift in behaviour and adaptations to their social life, but will also lead to innovative ideas to catapult student life on a new trajectory. This intermediate outcome is important as part of a broader reorganisation of human interactions and life in a post-Covid-19 world.     

The envisaged change in behaviour in our students as they reintegrate into our institutions will largely depend on the approach adopted in reorienting, educating and continuously raising their consciousness about the current disruptive change in societal life. We have chosen an approach that is predicated on the idea of education as a mechanism for social change.  I hope that the rest of the student community will be inspired by the SRC-initated student-volunteer programme, and be activated as conscious actors and their own liberators from Covid-19, as well as other diseases and social ills. 

At the end, as the sociologist Karl Mannheim observed: ‘’Whether youth will be conservative, reactionary, or progressive, depends (if not entirely, at least primarily) on whether or not the existing social structure and the position they occupy in it provides opportunities for the promotion of their own social and intellectual ends.” 

Luthando Jack is the dean of students at Nelson Mandela University.

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Luthando Jack
Luthando Jack is the dean of students at Nelson Mandela University.

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