NSFAS students in laptop limbo as govt opens tender

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Minister of higher education, science and innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande.
Minister of higher education, science and innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande.

Adding to the disarray of the 2020 academic year caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, it remains up in the air as to when some National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) beneficiaries will receive electronic devices to aid their studies.

Yesterday, education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande appealed for patience from parents, staff and students, regarding the distribution of laptops.

Like other educational institutions across the globe, the opening of South African learning institutes has been phased-in as cases of coronavirus continue to rise.

Under alert level three of the national lockdown, only 33% of the student population is expected to return to campuses, delivery sites and residences, while all other students will be supported through the remote multi-modal teaching and learning process until they return to classrooms.

There has been contention around this process, with some student education bodies warning it disadvantages a significant number of students based in underprivileged areas, especially in terms of data and devices to access online learning content.

Nzimande says for the past two weeks, the department has been engaging National Treasury on the procurement of devices for the NSFAS students.

“Today [Tuesday], I can confirm that by the end of this week, we will be commencing with the central procurement of these devices, particularly laptops, through an open tender system given the nature and the value of the procurement.

“We have agreed with National Treasury that given the huge amounts involved in the central acquisition of outstanding tablets, it is better to follow proper procedures than take short cuts, even if there is some delay, so as to properly account for spending of taxpayers’ money.

“We are also finalising the process of verifying which NSFAS students already have acquired devices, in order to avoid mistakenly issuing some students with more than one device per student.”

The minister highlights that not all students are without electronic devices, noting that 50% of universities have already and continue to make provision for gadgets to students.

“The NSFAS will be the contracting party on behalf of the Department of Higher Education and Training. They will be using the NSFAS funding policy to ensure they remain compliant with government policy and prescripts.

“I will make further pronouncements as soon as service provider/s have been appointed and give clear timelines for the commencement of the distribution of outstanding gadgets to all our institutions as per the NSFAS guidelines.”

Monitoring COVID-19

With more students beginning to return to campuses, Nzimande applauded Higher Health for introducing a COVID-19 monitoring tool, to ensure the health of students.

Dubbed HealthCheck, it is a purpose-built daily screening and monitoring tool that uses one’s cellphone. It is available via USSD, WhatsApp or simple Web-based.

One does not need to have a smartphone, as any device can be used to access HealthCheck, according to the minister.

“HealthCheck is secure to use by students and staff entering our campuses daily to self-check their body temperature, and will link such data to the tracking system of the Department of Health.

“All students and staff – approximately two million people – will be required to register for HealthCheck and use it every day to assess their own level of risk prior to entering campuses.

“Based on the answers entered on the platform, the person receives a message with the low, moderate or high level risk reading. If the risk is low, the individual will receive clearance valid for 24 hours.

“The tool allows for early detection, mapping and management of COVID-19 cases within higher education institutions and feeds into the national Department of Health tracking and tracing system.”

ICT training for all

Meanwhile, Cisco has stepped up to ensure continuity of learning under lockdown by making available free training on ICT skills courses to students and citizens across the continent.

The global networking giant highlights that school closures have impacted over 72% of students globally.

It says the training covers entrepreneurship, cyber security and Internet of things (IOT), to name a few subjects, adding that all students who successfully complete the courses will receive a certificate from the company.

“The online training which we have made available to anyone, for free, represents our love for education and our commitment to equipping people with the relevant ICT skills in order to be participants and key players in the fourth industrial revolution,” says Garsen Naidu, country manager of Cisco’s South African operations.

Facilitated by Cisco’s Networking Academy, the online training can be done at an individual’s own pace.

The courses on offer are Digital Literacy – Get Connected, Intro to Cyber Security, Intro to IOT, Linux Unhatched, Linux Essentials and Essentials In Python.

“We have the infrastructure to make distance learning possible. From the technologies to connect, communicate and engage, to the network infrastructure to support millions of students learning online and even the provision of security on our products and solutions, we are best positioned to enable this,” concludes Naidu.

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