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8 May 2020
UWC Has Resilience By The Bucketful

(Published - 8 May 2020)

All higher education institutions have been devising and implementing plans to ensure the 2020 academic year can be completed. 

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) has developed a flexible learning and teaching plan that is premised on certain principles to ensure no student will be left behind. 

A recent survey on student online readiness at UWC found that about 30% of students do not have access to devices and data. A fundraising campaign, called #NoStudentWillBeLeftBehind, was launched to raise funds for devices and data. By re prioritising the budget, the university allocated R14 million towards this campaign and researchers at UWC have donated from their authors' funds. 

As far as connectivity and data are concerned, Telkom and MTN have zero rated iKamva (the university's learning management system) and other URLs. A task team under the ministers of higher education and communication is working on a sectoral agreement. 

In the meantime, UWC is negotiating a suitable data package for staff and students with the cellphone operators. 

The university's academic and professional support staff have been amazing in preparing for online teaching, which started April 20. Fortunately, UWC implemented blended learning in 2016 after l#FeesMustFall protests, so it was not necessary to start from scratch. 

The first week was more of an "easing into" teaching by staff and stu dents. Lecturers helped to identify students who are not online. 

The university has also set up a call centre for students to inform UWC of their needs. 

There is a plan for print material to be prepared and delivered to remote areas through the assistance of dedicated service providers. 

The department of higher education and training prepared a second Government Gazette that will allow universities to deliver printed materials; the first gazette dealt only with electronic devices as essential goods to be distributed. 

One also needs to take into account the national context as well as the institutional context. Universities South Africa (USAf) is the national body of vice-chancellors. At its meeting on April 17, USAf agreed with the department that there will be a planned approach to return to campus, bearing in mind that Covid 19 is expected to spike between July and September. 

Each institution will have to devise its own plan, with the focus being that criteria for return need to be clear, that the majority of staff and students would still work remotely, that all returning persons need to be tested before they can enter campus and that personal protective equipment and sanitisers be provided. 

The ministers of basic and higher education made a joint pronouncement last week towards sector specific arrangements. This meant UWC had to adapt its phased in return plans to align with national imperatives, while being mindful of the university's contextual realities. The university worked on different scenarios and will confirm the new plan in the next week, including an amended academic calendar for 2020. 

Students are largely from the working class and from disadvantaged backgrounds, and do not necessarily have conducive learning spaces at home. So, in UWC's plans for a phased return to campus the focus will be on vulnerable students, academic needs and certain programmes where on-campus attendance may be required, such as laboratory work or clinical education.

The university has been hard at work identifying students with access constraints. Students were asked to come forward and communicate their data-related problems. 

For those who responded, the university will make available for three months from the beginning of May: 10 gigabytes of daytime data a month and 20GB of nighttime data a month The university negotiated this at a reasonable cost, thanks to the cooperation of network providers Vodacom and Cell C. This data will be available to 7500 students. 

About 13 000 students are in need of devices and data and UWC will endeavour to intensify its fundraising efforts to assist these students. 

In addition, it is hoped that the higher education department's plan to assist students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme with devices and data will come to fruition soon, which will enable UWC to focus on other vulnerable students such as the missing middle and unfunded students. 

Any level of planning only works if we have a cooperative spirit and if we display resilience  – which we have proven to possess by the bucketful at UWC. I am amazed at how our academic and professional support staff have gone above and beyond to reach our students. 

Having been in the unique position of being both Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic as well as Acting Rector and Vice-Chancellor in the past couple of months, I have a few thoughts on higher education leadership during Covid 19: 

  1. Endeavour to make the best plans ever that are implementable. But be agile, because the situation is so fluid that your carefully laid plans may need to change as you are in the process of implementing them; 
  2. Be reflective and evaluate what you do. If something is not working, change it; 
  3. Be attuned to human needs and wellness. Plans can only be implemented if people are mentally prepared to deliver on them; 
  4. Understand the systemic issues but also your own institutional realities and complexities, while striving to have a sectoral approach on certain issues; 
  5. Listen to stakeholders and ensure that those voices are part of formal structures;
  6. Communicate effectively and timeously; and 
  7. It is not about you and your personality, but what is in the best interest of your institution, its staff, students and the broader community. 

I found these helpful as I reflected on how we deal with this crisis. My view is that Covid 19 necessitates us to move into a new phase of learning and teaching in higher education. I am proud that we have come together as the University of the Western Cape to do so. We will have to remain resilient and take care of our own wellness and safety as we traverse this uncertain terrain. 

Finally, despite a deeply unequal system, we should not follow a deficit approach in relation to our students or ourselves. 

Professor Vivienne Lawack is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, and also Acting Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape. 

This piece originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 8 May 2020: