SA counts cost of largely lost year of learning

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 15 Jun 2021
Minister Dr Blade Nzimande hands over a laptop to a student at the South Cape TVET College last month.
Minister Dr Blade Nzimande hands over a laptop to a student at the South Cape TVET College last month.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande has expressed concern that Internet connectivity issues and slow access to learning devices were among the key challenges that compromised the quality of education for tertiary students during SA’s hard lockdown.

Nzimande spoke yesterday during the release of the findings of a study on the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people in the post-school education and training sector.

The study was conducted from 18 June to 18 September 2020 by wellness and development agency Higher Health, with the support of the Department of Higher Education, among 13 119 students from public and private higher learning institutions across SA’s nine provinces.

The study covered a range of themes, analysing access to accommodation, food, learning devices, data, security, quality of remote learning and impact on mental health, as well as substance use during the lockdown.

During the media briefing held at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Nzimande highlighted the key challenges faced by students who participated in the study, noting that more than 65% reported mild to severe psychological distress during the pandemic.

Over half of the surveyed students said they found it difficult to communicate with their learning institutions during the initial stages of the lockdown, with 5% reporting not having access to the Internet, and only 38% of Technical and Vocational Education and Training college students reported their institutions offered virtual learning.

On the other hand, more than 80% of students from universities and universities of technology received institutional support in the form of data bundles, data-free access to Web sites and online learning platforms.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

“I empathise with our students for the challenges that they faced during hard lockdown and the challenges they continue to face,” commented Nzimande.

“As much as we were aware and remain cognisant of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on our students, the study results have confirmed that conditions during lockdown impacted on Internet connectivity; access to devices, data and study material; lesser study time; ability to pay rent; financial struggles; food security and hunger; loss of social contact; loss of family members; access to transport, medical care and chronic medication, among others.”

The pandemic and the ailing economy have had a devastating impact on the 2020/2021 academic calendar, added Nzimande.

Of those who had access to connectivity, 7% said they accessed the Internet using data bundles provided by their institution, and 29% said they used prepaid data bundles.

Other challenges encountered by students during lockdown highlighted in the study included the loss of study time (57.9%), not having enough money for essential study items (55.8%), loss of social interaction (42.2%) and not having enough money for food (40.1%).

Equal digital rights required

Last May, the South African Union of Students collaborated with a movement of university lecturers to urge the higher education department to halt e-learning programmes across SA’s higher learning institutions, until the digital divide that exists among students had been addressed.

The representative bodies expressed concern that a significant number of students who are based in underprivileged areas were robbed of an equal opportunity to complete their academic year, with no access to adequate learning devices, network coverage and the connectivity required to enable a conducive remote online learning environment during the national lockdown.

In an interview with Newzroom Afrika yesterday, Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, CEO of Higher Health, admitted the current e-learning approach is not conducive for all South African students.

“The research tells us that youth in general have been neglected in the impact of the COVID-19 perspective. It also tells us that as far as blended learning is concerned in SA, there are some courses such as plumbing, mining, electrical, which cannot be totally done online and we need to look at how the higher learning institutions work closely with students in trying to build that skills set-up and capacity,” noted Ahluwalia.

Government’s long process to supply National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students with electronic devices to aid their studies during the lockdown had been marred by controversies since it was first announced last April.

Last week, ITWeb reported that only 7 300 of a total 730 000 of laptops intended for NSFAS students had been received, with the minister blaming the global chip shortage for the delays.

Last Friday, the next batch of laptops was finally delivered to the South Cape College in George, where Nzimande announced that close to 50 000 laptops would be delivered to colleges and universities over the next few weeks. Another 22 000 laptops are expected to arrive in the country by the end of the month.

On the same day, Nzimande officially launched the NSFAS Digital Learning Device Programme, an e-learning platform to aid students in online learning, while they study from home.

He noted that handing over the laptops will allow students, especially those in rural areas, to have better access to learning materials.

“In April 2020, I announced we will be providing laptops to assist students as part of our multi-modal teaching and learning. Today, we are fulfilling that promise. We can no longer, for example, have a situation where young people in rural areas do not have access to technology to enable them to work and study.”