The annual Focus Conference shines a spotlight on the state of education in the country

Foreground, Professor Marcus Ramogale, Acting VC and Principal, left, and Dr Whitfield Green, CHE CEO, at the conference

As has become tradition, the annual Focus Conference continued with its academic tradition of interrogating the current state of higher education, with a strong international flavour. Organised by the Teaching and Learning Development Centre (TLDC) at Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), this year’s conference focused on the impact of Covid-19 on higher education, and how the universities are responding to the pandemic.

Delivering the first keynote address of the conference, Dr Whitfield Green, the Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), said decision-makers and academics had to consider the challenges that are facing the South African higher education sector with clear minds.  Dr Green emphasized how higher education’s response to Covid-19 has made inequalities in the sector very clear. Professor Green highlighted how some of the responses and solutions to the challenges caused by the pandemic were superficial and based on what was the general belief – that one decision was going to be a solution to all the problems. But that was not the case. For instance, most higher education institutions thought that providing data to students who were now supposed to study from remotely was a universal solution. They were surprised to discover that some large parts of the country did not have connectivity, and therefore the students could not use the data they were provided.

Dr Green also pointed out that some students, especially first-year students, did not know how to use computers. He explained that when they enrolled with the institutions, they believed they would have someone in front of them all the time, teaching them. All of a sudden they found themselves all alone, with no laptops, with no lecturers, but with some family members who may not have any idea what the student was doing. It became clear that the well-intended step was not yielding any positive results. One of the results of this kind of disengagement from a system was that some students got frustrated, and dropped out of the system.

This situation affected mostly students from rural areas. Professor Adam Habib, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, agreed with Dr Green’s view and explained that the problem was global, and should be treated as such. Professor Habib, who is former Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, said only solutions that consider all parts of the problem will work. Professor Habib said that there was still a necessity for the traditional mode of delivery or face-to-face teaching and learning because it enabled a connection between the student and the lecturer. Responding to MUT Acting Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Marcus Ramogale’s suggestion that there will now be contract professors, Professor Habib said that such a way of teaching could escalate inequality.

“The students in the University of Cape Town that have a direct connection with the professor benefit, while those that the professor teaches online do not benefit in the same way,” Professor Habib said.  Professor Habib went to the extent of saying that the world was just not ready for some of the solutions that were employed while dealing with the pandemic. He said even a bold step like closing down the borders did not work. He suggested that what would have worked was giving everyone the necessary vaccine.

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning at MUT, Dr Manyane Makua, and Dr Green went further with the issue of the mode of delivery. They both said that packaging a lecture for the face-to-face meeting with the students should be different from doing it for online teaching. They were responding to the possibility that the quality of teaching may have been compromised by online teaching, and that this may have led to a lower quality of graduates.

Professor Habib warned that each case should be treated on its own merits; there was no one size fits all. Professor Habib was aptly supported by Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, Vice-Chancellor of the Tshwane University of Technology. Professor Maluleke warned against speaking ‘triumphantly’ about Covid-19, as if the problem was gone. He suggested that people in the sector still had to be vigilant, and had to monitor the effectiveness of the strategies they were using to teach the students.