This was the third part of the NSA Webinar Series: Covid-19 — Impact on Education, Skills Development and Training hosted by the National Skills Authority and the Mail & Guardian. It featured Dr Charles Nwaila, Chairperson of the NSA; Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation; Zingiswa Losi, President of the Congress of South African Trade Unions; Professor Nirmala Gopal of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Council; and Dr Layla Cassim, Director of Layla Cassim ERS Consultants CC. It was facilitated by NSA Director Dr Thabo Mashongoane.
Dr Charles Nwaila introduced the webinar participants, paid tribute to the role of women in society, and spoke about how Covid-19 has deepened the unemployment and inequality crises in South Africa. “Let’s invest in women to move South Africa forward,” said Nwaile.
Zingiswa Losi opened proceedings with a Cosatu presentation, which outlined how the skills shortage and unemployment — already in crisis before the pandemic — have been accelerated by Covid-19 and the lockdown. Decisive, urgent steps are required to grow the economy, including a R1-trillion stimulus plan, and the “immediate dismissal” of any corrupt politician. Skills programmes must match the changing workplace; “4IR is no longer a slogan, but a reality”.
Dr Thabo Mashongoane introduced himself, and said that several webinar attendees had congratulated Losi on her presentation in their comments. The long-standing issue of labour brokers “is a struggle that continues” said Losi. She said that Cosatu has been putting pressure on government to continue with UIF and TERS (Temporary Employer-Employee Relief Scheme) payments into September. The issue of non-implementation of good policies was raised; “we indicate left but turn right” said Losi; she called on government to stop talking and start taking action.
Buti Manamela said the NSA has been fighting the giant of poverty and that Covid-19 has made the battle tougher; the top priority now is to save lives and the academic year. Distance learning solutions have been implemented since the national state of disaster, but this has brought the economic divide to the fore, as many poor students don’t have laptops and data. TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) colleges have taken steps to get lectures online and train lecturers in online and remote presentation skills and blended learning. Groups have also been set up on platforms such as WhatsApp to help students learn together. Online learning will play a bigger role going forward, but universal access is essential: all students must have computers, and data must be available to all. SETAs (Sector Education Training Authorities) must do more. South Africa is resilient and is “bouncing back” from Covid-19, said Manamela, who added that we are “on track” to saving the academic year.
Manamela then fielded questions, starting with the student placement programme; he said that the private sector must also come to the party, so that graduates can obtain the required experience to become employed. He said the issue of online connectivity is being addressed by his department and the Department of Higher Education and Training.
Professor Nirmala Gopal said the world is transitioning to a digital economy, and so is South Africa, so skillsets and appropriate infrastructure are essential to boost job creation. We have to embrace 4IR or get left behind, but the challenge is our deficit of skills in South Africa. It is certain that there will be profound and rapid change, and to embrace this, there must be multi-stakeholder alliances between all the role players. Around half of the workforce won’t need reskilling, so things are not all “doom and gloom”. The higher education sector will play a key role in skills development, in fields like genomics and AI, but it cannot do this in isolation.
Strategies must be designed that include effective monitoring and evaluation, that respect freedom and human rights, and match skills with workplace demands. There must be a shift from routine tasks to developing creativity and innovation, the invention of proudly South African products, and workers must continuously update their skills. A paradigm shift is necessary to address the inequality gap: teachers must become facilitators and mentors, staff must learn about things like EQ, students must work together. The basic and higher education systems must speak to each other; the practical component of learning is “extremely important”. Collaboration is, for Gopal, the key word for educators, students and stakeholders.
Responding to questions, Gopal said that yes, STEM subjects should be taught from ECD level, instead of just in higher education. We have to be creative in how we allocate jobs, she said, and even entrepreneurs must learn to work collaboratively.
Dr Layla Cassim stressed that universities are not “different” to the rest of society, but rather they are microcosms that manifest broader social problems themselves. She has focused on the effects of Covid-19 on postgraduate students. Her business supports students in research; she has a toolkit on DVD and has been doing online presentations during lockdown; the toolkit is also on the University of Limpopo’s website. Many postgrads have had to change their research because of the lockdown, using secondary instead of primary data, and a number have struggled because they are depressed or concerned about loved ones, the so-called “second wave” of the pandemic.
Students have had to resort to innovative methods to collect data, using platforms such as WhatsApp, raising concerns about confidentiality and ethics. There have been delays in funding, and issues of access to computers, laboratories and data. The academic year has been rolled over to next year, creating its own stresses concerning career prospects. Many have been overburdened with workloads, as work has been distributed unequally during the lockdown; many have been unable to focus on their own research because they are busy with, for instance, online marking.
Some staff members have not had their own computers or data, or had to pay from their own pocket for these. Many universities will be adopting a combined approach in future, with much of the work being online. Inequalities — socioeconomic and gender — have been exaggerated by the lockdown; many women have reported having to take care of the kids, work and study, so they end up working in the early hours of the morning. People with disabilities have reported problems too. Universities have not collaborated as much as they should have in the lockdown, possibly because they compete with each other. Basic resources have been in short supply: some rural universities have not had water, and some students have had to bring toilet paper to varsity in their bags; it’s difficult to carry out research under such conditions, said Gopal. Many rural universities, students and communities have indeed been left behind.
Nwaila wrapped up the webinar, saying that socioeconomic inequality was a theme that emerged in all the presentations, and “can be referred to as a pandemic in itself”. He ran through the presentations of each speaker, summarising them and emphasising the most succinct points. He thanked all the speakers and handed over to Mashongoane, who presented the polling results: 60% of participants were worried that AI may lead to a loss of jobs, which is cause for serious concern.
To watch and listen to the webinar, click here: https://event.webinarjam.com/t/click/ryg6vs6raroigkuyv8vsn79an16ug