Mr Manamela said the higher education and training sector was embracing the challenges and learning from hindsight during the pandemic.
“What we have heard from plenty of universities is how they had to adapt their learning and teaching, and assessments and we emphasised that all of this must not compromise the integrity of the academic year 2020. All graduates from this period (and their) qualifications have to have the same gravitas as in the past,” he said during the visit.
Mr Manamela lauded UWC’s inclusive response to COVID-19.
“I’m quite impressed that all the stakeholders are involved in how the institution responds to COVID-19 and the involvement of task teams. That has been one of the biggest challenges… but with time we have seen that most institutions have realised that any strategy that does not include workers and students will not succeed because those are some of the major stakeholders on campus. Therefore, I’m quite impressed that all of this is happening at UWC,” he said.
Mr Manamela warned university communities to remain vigilant, especially because South Africa had moved to lockdown level one. In fact, Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, Chief Executive Officer of Higher Health, which has provided a sectoral approach for universities during the lockdown, said the virus is non-seasonal and is here to stay. He said the practical reality is that universities will have to live with the virus and adapt.
Earlier during the visit, Prof Vivienne Lawack, UWC’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, said there were immediate challenges with data and devices when the academic year resumed during lockdown on 20 April 2020. But the resilience of students and staff won the day.
“We had quite a year and what we did quite well was to devise 9 principles for learning and teaching, supported by a contingency plan. We applied those principles as well for assessments that assisted us in achieving our objectives for flexible learning and teaching,” she said.
Prof Lawack said the University started a #NoStudentWillBeLeftBehind campaign that raised R26-million for undergraduate students and R6-million for postgraduate students for devices and data for flexible online learning. The University recorded a 94% participation rate by students in flexible learning during the various levels of lockdown.
Prof Pamela Dube, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Development and Support, said the University adopted a student-centric approach during lockdown and the emphasis was placed on accommodation readiness for returning students, health and wellness, learning support for students with disabilities, gender equity and the combating of gender-based violence.
She said UWC had a partnership with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and a 24/7 free telephonic counselling service was made available to all students. Prof Dube said the number of students seeking support for health and wellness had increased during lockdown. The University’s food security projects supported a total of 898 students from January this year to date.
Mr Manie Regal, Executive Director: Finance and Services, who is also the COVID-19 manager for UWC, outlined the University’s responses. Among other measures, he said, the university adopted a number of policies and set up task teams, including a COVID-19 Response Task Team, an Advisory Board that included resident coronavirus experts, as well as setting up isolation stations to deal with positive cases.
The University also invested in sanitiser stations and awareness posters at each entrance and all access points to the campus. Personal Protection Equipment, including masks and sanitiser, was issued to all returning students and staff members. Mr Regal said 37% of staff had returned to campus while the rest were working from home thanks to a flexible work policy the University had adopted – a move that was appreciated by the University’s employment union who said this had mitigated the risk of infection and spread of the virus.
SRC president Sasha-Lee Douglas said the University responded well to the need for devices and data, but there is always room for improvement. She said students played a vital role in helping with the distribution of devices, personal protection equipment as well as participating in community awareness and outreach projects during lockdown.
“The single greatest lesson we should take from COVID-19 is that we are stronger and more effective together… what I would like to say to all the departments at UWC is: we have done a lot, we have a lot more to do,” she said.
The Deputy Minister expressed his appreciation for UWC’s compliance with COVID-19 regulations.
Mr Regal added that the successful implementation of COVID-19 regulations is the joint achievement of the Department of Higher Education and Training, students, staff, stakeholders and UWC Executive Management who worked very closely to present a united front.