Academic urges student discounts from telcos, device-makers

Read time 4min 10sec
Professor Veronica McKay, vice-principal for teaching and learning at UNISA.
Professor Veronica McKay, vice-principal for teaching and learning at UNISA.

A senior academic at the University of South Africa (UNISA) is urging telcos and electronic equipment manufacturers to provide discounted options for services and products targeted at students.

Professor Veronica McKay, vice-principal for teaching and learning at UNISA, says the industry has a social responsibility to assist students and there's now a need to see the much bigger picture on providing discounted services to enhance learning.

Her comments come as a two-month deal UNISA had with MTN comes to an end. The parties had concluded a business agreement to offer 380 000 students with 30GB of data per month for a period of two months, ending tomorrow.

According to the deal, MTN offered a favourable rate on 30GB of data (10GB anytime and 20GB night time) and the university went on to spend almost R60 million on the project.

McKay tells ITWeb that the COVID-19-induced lockdown has shown the importance of telcos and ICT service providers working together with institutions like UNISA to assist students with their learning.

“As part of our social responsibility mandate, we had to assist students with data for them to be able to write their exams online. The digital divide is huge and one hopes telcos and device manufacturers also offer discounted services to students.

“We have 184 000 students who receive financial support from NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme]. There are many others who receive support from other sources. Why can’t the telecoms and ICT providers have discounted options for students’ packages?

“Instead, we have students changing SIM cards all the time to get the free minutes available. Really? Education is a social issue. Hairdressers offer students cheap prices, restaurants do the same. Cinemas do this. Telecoms and ICT providers also have a social responsibility to students.”

McKay believes “it really takes a village to raise a child” and the industry must rescue the current situation.

“Many of our students are poor; they are all over the continent and unfortunately, we could only provide for those in SA. There should be some other way of getting data for students. We are not like developed countries that have huge access to fibre. What we deal with is the struggle for education, and for me data is human rights issue, and telcos should open special products for students.”

McKay says there is also a need for laptops that are affordable for students.

Snooping accusations

McKay dismissed allegations that UNISA and mobile network operators were snooping and actively monitoring the online activities of students who were allocated free data under COVID-19 relief efforts.

The privacy uproar erupted following a document authored by Pretoria-based lawyer Masego Morige from Snail Attorneys, questioning whether UNISA together with the operators were monitoring students’ devices without their knowledge.

“We have no reason to do that; we only offered them data so that they can write their exams. What they do with data is not for us to monitor,” says McKay.

MTN and Vodacom have also dismissed the snooping allegations levelled against them.

In April, universities including those of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg, announced agreements with Vodacom and MTN to provide data to students during the lockdown period.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA’s executive for corporate affairs, comments: “MTN does not monitor individual behaviour and it would be unlawful to do so. The only monitoring we do of the zero-rated sites is to look at the overall amount of traffic on those sites. Wherever traffic is zero-rated, it will always attract hackers who seek to abuse the system for personal gain.

“These hackers try to hijack the system for tunnelling to other Web sites that do require the use of data, most often YouTube or gaming sites. Tunnelling is theft and where it is identified, it is immediately shut down.”

A Vodacom spokesperson says: “Allegations that Vodacom is monitoring students’ online activities are false and baseless. We can also confirm that we have not received any requests from government to monitor the online activities of students.

“Current laws in South Africa serve to protect customer information and do not allow us to share any customer information without a court order, or without the consent of the customer. In the event that Vodacom is served with a Section 205 subpoena from the court, Vodacom will then be obliged to act accordingly and will abide by applicable South African laws.”

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