/ 2 August 2020

Caring for students goes beyond the teaching project

Senior academics tried to work out what — 25 years into democracy — some universities are still not transformed in class
The Covid-19 pandemic gives universities an opportunity to find new ways of ensuring the health and well-being of students (Madelene Cronje)


Caring for students during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond will require forging “a new normal” for student welfare. 

The pandemic has affected the education system as a whole and students and teachers across the world have had to adapt to online and virtual learning worlds. In our South African context, there are the additional obstacles of socioeconomic inequalities that affect access and the ability to pursue learning online.

Increasingly, however, we deal with consequences of the pandemic, lockdown and social distancing that go beyond technical and other practical concerns to the toll that they are taking on our students’ physical and mental well-being.

At our universities, the stories and requests for help that emerge are both heart-warming as well as heart-wrenching. Some stories pertain to how students are supporting each other, and how universities and individual lecturers are going beyond the call of duty to assist students. 

Many more stories, however, tell about the increased struggles students are facing. Requests are made for financial assistance, access to data and devices, food and basic necessities. Requests have also been made for students to be allowed to return to campus and campus accommodation in order to have access to services and facilities, but also for safety. For our female and international students, problems are often compounded and lack of support systems have broken down or are non-existent. We increasingly hear stories of gender-based violence.

It is a time and environment in which we cannot afford to let our students down. 

But, suddenly, our usual channels and platforms for support, whether academic, social or psychological, are either not available, or have to be adapted to the online environment. 

Access aside, technology also fails sometimes and we need to be appreciative of

both physical and emotional barriers that prevent students reaching out. 

As a lecturer or teacher, it is easy to lose your connection with students online. Gender imbalances also seem to become reinforced, where I find that female students are silent during online discussions. In addition, male students seem better at asking for support. 

Not everyone feels comfortable asking questions in an open, online forum and even having to write about a situation or ask a private question is difficult through email. 

I worry that our female students only reach out when a situation has become untenable. 

For all its tragedies and horrors, however, the Covid-19 pandemic presents us with an opportunity to forge a new approach to the way in which we engage with our students and show empathy and care when we deal with problems that extend beyond the immediate teaching project. 

We need to provide multiple platforms and channels of communication. We need to create safe spaces, both physical and virtual, where our students, in particular our female ones, can share stories and reach out to peers as well as trusted university staff without fear of bullying or repercussions and where bigotry and oppressive views are not tolerated. 

To guarantee this, rules need to be agreed upon for how interactions are conducted, and we need to find ways of ensuring privacy. These safe spaces and support networks can be peer-led as well as established by trained counsellors or teaching staff.

It is, however, about how well we utilise, structure and facilitate these kinds of services that counts. Communication is of key importance, whether through ensuring information is accessible and accurate or through facilitating regular meetings and check ins with our students. 

What we are seeing is a move towards a more holistic approach to caring for students and an increased appreciation for the barriers that need to be overcome in order to reach them.

How well we care for our students during this time will determine the future success of higher education, levels of enrolment and pass rates. Hopefully measures put in place can form part of the new normal beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.