Johannesburg – Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, says the department is working tirelessly to salvage what is left of the academic year after the COVID-19 pandemic affected learning institutions across the globe.
Speaking during a media briefing on Thursday, Dr Nzimande said the pandemic and national lockdown caused serious disruptions to the entire university operations, including teaching and learning, and research and engagement programmes.
“Universities and their staff and students responded positively, although at different paces, depending on each institutional circumstance,” he said.
According to the department, the vast majority of the 25 public universities are at “low risk” of not completing the academic year.
He has assured South Africans that all universities are fully committed to complete the 2020 academic year by mid-March 2021.
According to Minister Nzimande, so far, it is only the University of Johannesburg that has already wrapped up its academic year, while the University of Pretoria is expected to finish this month.
Eight are expected to finish in December, three in January, nine in February and four in March.
Meanwhile, all 25 universities are set to start the 2021 academic year at end of March 2021 and one university in April.
“This aligns well with the release of the Basic Education National Senior Certificate results, which are expected to be released on the 23rd of February 2021.”
Nzimande was also pleased that despite the COVID-19 induced crisis, valuable lessons were learnt.
“We have again been starkly reminded of the high levels of inequality that prevail in South Africa generally, as well as in higher education.”
According to the Minister, the “better developed” universities were able to navigate the severe operating challenges with less difficulty compared to the under-developed, often historically Black universities.
“We have sought to structure the COVID-19 support interventions in the sector to provide aggressive support for especially the historically disadvantaged institutions.”
While the sector faced formidable hurdles, he said several universities have recorded a better student performance in comparison to previous years.
The initial research indicates positive impact in respect of the multimodal, blended approach to teaching and learning, opportunities provided to students to learn in different ways, more flexibly and at their own pace, and multiple assessment methods.
“It is clear that blended and multimodal learning, including digital and online learning, must become a standard part for the future higher education system,” he told the media.
“In this regard, I intend next year to set up a Ministerial Task Team to help us develop strategies to make online learning a reality in our sector.”
However, he acknowledged that a significant number of students, especially those at historically Black universities and campuses, and living in working-class and poor communities, have struggled to access the digital platform.
This is due to the lack of devices, connectivity and other family household circumstances.
“It is clear that the class and spatial legacies of the past are continuing to impair the ability of many of our students to fully take advantage of learning opportunities under the COVID-19 threat.”
Meanwhile, the start of the 2021 academic year for the Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges will be delayed by three weeks, with returning students are expected to campuses on 25 January.
“The situation is as a result of having the 2020 examinations continuing until the 11th of December 2020 with the colleges closing on the 15th of December 2020.”
Nzimande said the marking, moderation and results processing will continue to January 2021 affecting the usual release of the results.
“However, I must indicate that this arrangement is carefully considered and will not affect the 2021 academic year.”