Wits University. Picture: WITS
Wits University. Picture: WITS

Universities may have to extend the academic year into the first quarter of 2021 due to the disruption caused by Covid-19, a development likely to create new financing pressures on the government, parliament heard on Tuesday.

Schools and higher education institutions were ordered to close before the government imposed a national lockdown on March 27. The department of higher education and training is working closely with institutions to re-organise teaching to ensure students can complete the programme planned for the academic year, but it is possible their work will have to roll over into next year, said the department’s deputy director-general for university education, Diane Parker.

Extending the academic year would mean extending support for hundreds of thousands of students who depend on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the government conduit for financing free higher education for students from poor and working-class families.

“Students are being funded during this period by NSFAS, but we recognise with the extension of the academic year there may be need to extend support into the first quarter of 2021, and that may have financial implications,” said Parker. Modelling work is underway to determine the financial implications of a longer 2020 academic year, she said.

Universities are planning to resume their academic programme by May 4, using online teaching platforms, she said, but they are only likely to resume traditional contact lectures when SA has passed its Covid-19 peak, which could be as late as September.

“We need to have a phased-in resumption of campus activity, and each institution is looking at which types of teaching and learning need to be phased in and how,” she said.

Universities were considering a range of options, including the provision or loan of laptops; delivering hard-copy learning materials and data sticks; and creating learning sites for students who do not have network access or appropriate space at home.  

Parker warned that some universities may come under financial pressure from the loss of tuition fees and accommodation income due to the lockdown and a potentially protracted resumption of normal activities. Providing online learning carried high start up costs, she said.

While the majority of students had returned home before the lockdown began, almost 6,300 students remained on university campuses. They have been provided with food and hygiene products, and essential services are continuing on campuses, Parker said. The majority of the students are international students or post-graduates.

The department’s chief director for Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) colleges Aruna Singh said only 17 out of the sector’s 50 institutions are offering online learning. Lecturers are making extensive use of WhatsApp to communicate with students, as most learning is textbook-based.



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