Covid-19: Lessons for Higher Education

South Africa, with its appalling levels of poverty and inequality, has experienced an extraordinary stress test from which it has much to learn. By Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO, Universitites South Africa

Covid-19: Lessons for Higher Education

Just as it has done to societies across the world, Covid-19 has placed enormous stresses and strains on South Africa’s people through its severe implications for their health and its impact on the national and local economies. In a sense the pandemic pre-existed the arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. South Africa, with its appalling levels of poverty and inequality, has experienced an extraordinary stress test from which it has much to learn. Higher education hasn’t escaped this. It too has learned much and has much more to learn.

While Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on all aspects of the operations of the universities and on their students and staff, it would be a serious error to think of Covid-19 as the only disruptive process that South Africa’s higher education system has been subjected to. The student activism of 2015-2017, the post-2008 economic crisis and it impact on funding for teaching and research, and the annual challenges to the national system (in particular, at the historically disadvantaged institutions and the universities of technology) for a better student funding system have all conspired to keep the system in a state of crisis. There have, nevertheless, been important learnings in the last 18 months. I refer to just two here.

Perhaps the most important was a fundamental shift: to anchor the response of the individual universities and the sector to Covid-19 on a set of principles.

For instance, when it became clear, at the first announcement of the lockdown, that the rapid shift to some form of emergency online teaching/learning would jeopardise the access to learning of more than 50% of the students in the system, it was decided that each institution would adopt multiple pathways to ensure this access – even if it meant extending the 2020 academic year into 2021.

Just as important to the response of the sector was the development of an ethos of collaboration and partnership-building among the 26 public universities. Both old and new communities of practice from across the sector worked ceaselessly to produce innovative solutions to address the vexed challenges the universities found themselves facing. Universities SA acted as a cohering centre for these. This spirit of collaboration and partnership expanded beyond the universities to include government, the National Students Financial Aid Scheme, the Council on Higher Education, Higher Health, the South African Public Colleges Organisation and private sector organisations.

These examples – with a range of others – have helped to open the way for a reimagination of the relationship between universities and society. We have seen the emergence of a social justice rubric to underpin the way in which universities relate to society. And the emergence of strong interinstitutional partnerships and the idea of working effectively to build a better higher education ecosystem too have created a pathway to building a more effective higher education system. Of course, one has to say that this must be convolved with several other conditions such as the long-term funding of the sector.

Partnerships between philanthropy and universities are well established with deep roots. Meetings at the beginning of the pandemic have produced interesting new interventions and partnerships. There are clearly important intersections between ongoing and new philanthropic interventions.

With the explosion in the use of digital technologies in teaching and learning, numerous questions arise related to access, quality and success. Much needs to be investigated to ensure that the use of technology serves the mission of public universities well.

One may imagine for instance the development of a plan for the creation of a national digital teaching and learning ecosystem that reaches all South Africans and provides for connectivity. Also drawing on the use of technology, an acceleration in the potential for new collaborations in co-teaching and co-badging of qualifications between universities in South Africa may be another line of exciting investigation.

This deeply disruptive moment produces many channels for new partnerships between philanthropy and universities that may produce powerfully transformative outcomes. This may be a moment for bold thinking.



This article was first published in Inyathelo's 2020/2021 Annual Report.