COVID-19 Response: University & TVET plans for 2020 academic year; DSI work on COVID-19; with Minister

Higher Education, Science and Innovation

21 April 2020
Chairperson: Mr P Mapulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

COVID-19: Regulations and Guidelines
Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002
Media Statement - 17 April 2020

In light of the nationwide lockdown brought on by the prevalence of the COVID-19, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) briefed the Committee on the plans in place to save and complete the 2020 academic year and the situation of students still on campus or living in residences.

All tertiary education institutions are committed to completing the 2020 academic year and sectoral collaboration will be crucial, while still allowing for institutional differences. However, a reorganisation of the year is essential and its completion could possible extend into 2021. A phased-in return to the academic year will be facilitated with a combination of online and remote learning to start with leading to a full return to contact teaching when it becomes feasible to do so. It is expected that universities will return to online and remote learning from 4 May 2020. There should be no full return to face-to-face campus activities until the peak of the virus is over, which is projected to be only in September 2020. Loaning of devices to students is underway to ensure that they are able to access their course materials. Campuses will undergo environmental cleaning and students and staff members will undergo testing. DHET has emphasised the adoption of the principle of ‘no student gets left behind’ when considering how to best facilitate online learning. Regular communication with the public is guaranteed for the plan ahead to ensure that students and stakeholders are informed. Students still on campuses have been provided with support and a remodelling of NSFAS funding has to be explored should the academic year extend into 2021.

MPs registered concerns about students who may not have the technology and other resources needed to access online lessons. They insisted that DHET assist those students who may not have appropriate learning spaces at home. Express concerns were noted on how online learning entrenches existing inequalities in our education sector.

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) presented the work done by research councils, universities and other science entities to contribute to the curbing of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. DSI outlined the COVID-19 pandemic timeline up to now and explained the cycle of the disease from infection, hospitalisation to recovery. It undertakes to execute the National System of Innovation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes: research and innovation, analytics and modelling, data generation and management, manufacturing – all centred on international cooperation. The way forward requires continued support after the lockdown period and even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

MPs asked about how universities and DSI entities are expected to contribute to the curbing of the COVID-19 pandemic when their work is not considered as ‘essential work’ and how this will be addressed. They pointed out that employees of science and innovation centres cannot go to work which has a detrimental impact on the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Meeting report

The Chairperson opened the virtual meeting and welcomed Members, the DHET delegation, other government entities and stakeholders. DHET would brief the Committee on the current measures in place at higher education institutions to save the 2020 academic year and to highlight the situations of students still living on campuses who were unable to go home for the lockdown period. DSI will provide an overview of the projects and innovations undertaken by universities and entities to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DHET delegation consisted of Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande; Deputy Minister,  Mr Buti Manamela; Dr Diane Parker (Deputy-Director-General: University Education); Ms Aruna Singh (Acting Deputy-Director-General: TVET); and Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde (Director-General: University Education). The DSI delegation consisted of Ms Buhle Khumalo-Bokaba (Chief Director: Science Communications) and Dr Phil Mjwara (Director-General). Other stakeholders present were from the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA), National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), and media reporters.

Minister of Higher Education and Training briefing
Minister Blade Nzimande expressed the need to complete the 2020 academic year successfully in universities and technical and vocational education training (TVET) colleges. The situation we face is very unpredictable and DHET cannot plan the way forward with the normal precision. The epidemiology of the COVID-19 makes it challenging to create a concrete plan for the academic year, which is exacerbated by possible extensions of the national lockdown period.

The country faces three deeply interlinked crises: the health crisis brought on by COVID-19 itself and its implication for our citizens; the deep economic crisis brought on by the pandemic and its implications for business after the lockdown and the third crisis is the social distress caused in households and communities, especially in poor and indigent communities.

Minister Nzimande mentioned being a part of the National Command Council tasked with dealing with the implications of COVID-19 on a daily basis. A week before the nation-wide lockdown period started, a meeting was held with higher education sector stakeholders to discuss how to deal with the situation. It was decided that a Dedicated Task Team (DTT) would be established that represents all the key stakeholders including DHET, trade unions, students, Universities South Africa, NSFAS, universities and TVET colleges. The DTT led by Deputy Minister Manamela has as its immediate task managing and controlling the COVID-19 pandemic within the post-school educational sector to make appropriate decisions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing inequalities that plague our education sector. While we are acting in a manner to ensure that ‘no student is left behind’, DHET is confronted by the very inequalities it seeks to address. The approach and emphasis should focus on ensuring that the different constituencies act together during these challenging times. There are many challenges to online learning, and an ICT Task Team (ITT) has been created to identify the gap between students and to assess the online capacities of the system to facilitate online learning. Measures are in place to look into the zero-rating of educational websites and facilities and to address students’ data costs.

Minister Nzimande briefly referred to the the appointment of new Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) Boards with effect from 1 April 2020 and the key challenges they were facing during the lockdown period. It was noted that this issue should not be discussed at the present meeting. An ICT team has been compiled that is informed by volunteers and key stakeholders in the IT field to assist DHET in identifying and addressing the challenges faced. Upon consultation with the Minister of Basic Education, a dedicated spectrum for education across the country must be released. Regular communication with the public is guaranteed for the plan ahead to ensure that students and stakeholders are informed.

Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde introduced the three advisors who will be addressing the Committee. Dr Diane Parker will address the 2020 academic situation in public universities, Ms Aruna Singh will address the 2020 academic situations in TVET colleges, and Dr Phil Mjwara will present the work from DSI.

Plans to save 2020 academic year (Universities)
Dr Diane Parker (Deputy-Director-General: University Education) said the plans presented focused on the successful completion of the year at public universities and about students still in university residences.

Principles and framework:
DHET is delighted to report that all public universities have committed to completing the 2020 academic year successfully, but a reorganisation of the year is essential and its completion could possible extend into 2021. The exact trajectory of the pandemic in South Africa is unknown, and DHET is engaging with individual universities to discuss various scenarios that are being put forward.

The principle of ‘no student left behind’ must be embraced and all students should be given a fair opportunity for completion. Universities are committed to work together as a sector while still allowing for institutional differences. Online, remote, and flexible learning methodologies must be used as best as possible to take into account the various institutional differences.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is committed to completing the academic year in schools, and it is imperative that DHET achieves the same to ensure that learners who leave school can integrate into tertiary educational institutions in 2021. It is crucial to consult with DBE on the plan for the completion of the school year and the time of opening of the 2021 school year. Delays in completion of the school year will affect the 2021 university academic year. Large-scale infrastructure programmes on campuses must recommence as soon as possible as the costs of delays are high.

Overarching plan and guidelines under consideration:
A phased-in return to the academic year will be facilitated with a combination of online and remote learning to start with leading to a full return to contact teaching when it becomes feasible to do so. The decision to return to contact teaching will be based on scientific advice and follow the prescripts of the government and the regulations in place. It is expected that universities will return to online and remote learning from 4 May 2020. There should be no full return to face-to-face campus activities until the peak of the virus is over, which is projected to be only in September 2020. Resumption of teaching and learning will be dependent on the strategic decisions and critical criteria developed at national and institutional level where some students will return to campus. Provision or loaning of devices to students is underway to ensure that students are able to access their course materials. Some institutions are considering delivering hard copy or electronic learning materials to students through USBs or printed materials. Sector-wide possibilities are being explored to ensure that students have access to physical learning sites on a coordinated basis for students who do not have access to appropriate study conditions (such as a lack of network accessibility and inappropriate home learning spaces).

Additional considerations:
Students and staff members who return to campuses should be screened and tested. A thorough environmental cleaning of campuses and residences should be completed before students and staff members return. On-campus quarantine facilities must be made available to students and staff members. The requirements for NSFAS-funding must be remodelled should there be an extension of the academic year to provide support for students for the additional months (likely to be the first quarter of 2021). Institutions need to communicate clearly, and mental health support must be provided to their students and staff members. It is critical to define the scope of zero-rated websites and the provision of data bundles to students and to finalise the agreements with data providers. DHET is exploring the possible funding requirements for institutions that are in distress, including the identification of critical areas of financial support that may be required. Universities may lose some tuition and accommodation fees due to a long period of lockdown or semi-lockdown. The initially high costs of implementing online learning must be considered. The possibility of programme collaboration across institutions is being explored.

Students remaining on university campuses:
There are still 6 720 students remaining on university campuses. The majority of these students are postgraduate or international students with some undergraduate students who were unable to return home for various specific reasons. The students remaining have received support for food and hygiene products, and essential services have been put in place to ensure the safety of the students. Students have also been provided with counselling services and access to information about their health care options and procedures. Special protocols have been put in place to ensure that these students adhere to the principles of social distancing and good hygiene to flatten the curve and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology reported having the highest number of students still in their residences (1 853). The University of Johannesburg and the University of Stellenbosch has alarmingly high numbers of students still in residences with 940 and 971 students respectively. Five universities have managed to vacate their campuses completely (Sol Plaatjie University, University of Limpopo, Tshwane University of Technology, University of Zululand, and the University of Mpumalanga).

Universities South Africa (USAf) has provided DHET with a detailed report of the research and innovative work that is currently being done at universities in an effort to contain, manage, and understand the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘Annexure C’ was presented to the Committee as a detailed report of the work of the individual universities. The work is quite extensive across the universities, and ranges from different forms of medical and biomedical research, engineering, and manufacturing of medical equipment, and various forms of economic and social research to understand the effects of the pandemic on our society and the economy. Many universities are working extensively on a global scale to support our national response to COVID-19.

Minister Nzimande added that it is important that we not lose sight of the private universities and colleges across the countries as those students are of interest to DHET. Those students and their situation needs to be monitored frequently even if no funding is allocated to providing students of private institutions with COVID-19 relief measures.

Plans to save 2020 academic year (TVET colleges)
Ms Aruna Singh (Acting Deputy-Director-General: TVET) spoke on the two possible scenarios for the remainder of the year; the plans to complete examinations; the initiatives to reach students remotely; and the various online learning support initiatives in place to assist students during the lockdown period.

Two possible scenarios for completion of the academic year:
There are two possible scenarios for the completion of the academic year at TVET colleges. The first scenario is when the nation-wide lockdown is extended until the end of May 2020, which has major implications for the completion of the academic year. The second scenario is when the lockdown is lifted in a phased-in manner after 1 May 2020 to ensure compliance with the measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19. Should students return on 4 May 2020 (as planned for in the second scenario), the Trimester 1 examinations will take place during May/June 2020 and the semester 1 examinations will then take place in June/July 2020. Trimester 2 examinations will take place during October 2020 and the semester 2 examinations in November/December 2020. Trimester 3 examinations will not be taking place in 2020.

Initiatives to reach students remotely:
DHET will use a range of different tools to support students remotely. The first level of tools are those that have the widest reach to every student and focuses on textbook-based learning coupled with national examination question papers. The second level of tools is expected to reach most students and utilises radio and television broadcasts. The third level of tools is expected to reach 60% of students and utilises zero-rated websites and free links. The fourth level of tools is expected to reach under 40% of students and includes college-based learner management services (LMS).

Online learning support initiatives:
DHET has commenced with the implementation of online learning support initiatives, which were presented to the Committee. All TVET college websites are zero-rated for the duration of the state of disaster, providing free access to learning resources, guidelines and communication methods for students. Colleges with LMS and those already offering distance education will be able to maximize this benefit. Free access to college websites is very useful and is something that will be vigorously pursued with the telecoms companies after the state of disaster. Discussions with data providers are reaching finalisation to provide free data to students to access educational resources and links.

Two major publishers of TVET college textbooks have already made their e-Guides available free of charge to college students. These e-Guides are fully aligned to the national subject curriculums, and can be accessed using the App that can be downloaded free of charge from Google Play Store. Previous national examination question papers are available on the Department’s National Open Learning Platform (NOLS), for students to access and help them prepare for the national examinations.

Briefing by DSI on work being done to curb the pandemic:
Dr Phil Mjwara (DSI Director-General) presented the work done by DSI entities to curb the spread of COVID-19. The presentation focused on the timeline of the pandemic, COVID-19 cycle, an outline of the National System of Innovation’s response to the pandemic, and the projected way forward in curbing COVID-19.

Timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic:
At the end of December 2019, China informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) of a form of pneumonia with an unknown aetiology that was detected in Wuhan City in the Hubei province of China. By 3 January 2020, 44 patients were reported to WHO. By 12 January 2020, detailed information from the National Health commission of China associated the outbreak of the disease with the seafood market in Wuhan. This disease as identified as a novel strain of COVID-19 by 12 January when China proceeded to share its genetic sequence for other countries to use in developing testing kits. On 13 January, the Ministry of Public Health in Thailand reported the first imported case from Wuhan and by 23 January, COVID-19 had spread to Japan, Korea, and the United States of America.

South Africa reported its first imported COVID-19 case on 5 March. By 24 March, DSI had directed some of its funds towards the COVID-19 pandemic response and a report on the specific interventions (including research projects) undertaken by various science entities were compiled. Since then the government has enforced a nation-wide lockdown to curb the spread of the pandemic.

COVID-19 cycle: Infection, hospitalisation and recovery:
DSI explained the cycle of infection, hospitalisation, and recovery of COVID-19 and simplified it for the Committee to understand by using average figures. 80% of reported COVID-19 cases are regarded as ‘mild’ and 20% regarded as ‘severe or critical’. Patients who are categorised as ‘severe or critical’ are hospitalised usually within 5.9 days, and are then categorised as requiring ICU or non-ICU care after 3.5 days. Approximately 70% of the ‘severe or critical cases’ require non-ICU care and patients are discharged after 4.5 days. Only 30% of the ‘severe or critical cases’ require ICU care, which correlates to 6% of all reported cases in South Africa. Approximately 50% of patients in ICU are discharged after 12.5 days and 50% of ICU-cases results in fatalities. Approximately 3% of all reported cases of COVID-19 in South Africa results in fatalities.

National System of Innovation’s response:
The National System of Innovation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic includes various aspects: research and innovation, analytics and modelling, data generation and management, manufacturing, and these aspects are all centred on international cooperation.

Research that has been prioritised includes the development of tools to rapidly diagnose COVID-19, targeted surveillance and modelling, therapeutic trials for treatment and prophylaxis of health care workers or highly exposed individuals, the re-purposing of drugs for treatment of mild cases, monoclonal antibodies, immunoglobulins and molecular epidemiology, and the research and development for vaccines. The development of rapid diagnostic tests is prioritised to assist and relieve significant pressure on the pathology services. Various research groups and companies have diagnostic tests at various stages of development and the capabilities of rolling out testing facilities are being explored. Various surveillance studies are undertaken and include sentinel, hospital-based surveillance of adults hospitalised for Severe Acute Respiratory Infection (SARI); serological and genomic investigations of COVID-19 among HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected individuals and those suffering from Tuberculosis; epidemiological and phylogenetic investigation of the disease in KwaZulu-Natal for community testing; the establishment of a repository of whole blood samples for possible identification of genetic markers that makes individuals more predisposed to infection by COVID-19; and assisting with the modelling of the epidemic. Solidarity core protocols are investigates as part of an international study of treatments and all medical schools have been requested to be involved. Lastly, new or repurposed drugs and drug delivery systems are explored, such as complementary medicines with proven anti-viral activities such as Pelargonium.

Various measures are taken to ensure adequate modelling and analysis of the pandemic, including exploring models for predicting the spread of the virus; creating data visualisation dashboards; creating integration platform; creating epidemiological and response strategy modelling protocols; assessing the vulnerability of regions to the pandemic; keeping track of infection data (including recoveries and mortalities); coordinating research with various science councils; and putting a survey in place to understand the knowledge and attitudes of South Africans to the pandemic.

It is imperative to maintain an understanding of social behaviour during this period through data generation and management. Various public surveys are being conducted to determine the public’s knowledge about COVID-19, how prepared people are to care for themselves and others, and their general feelings about the pandemic and the nation-wide situation. Key informants of the public’s social behaviour are taxi drivers or commuters, religious leaders, traditional leaders, homes for the elderly, shebeen owners, CEOs and stakeholders of private companies, health care workers, and medical aid schemes.

There are a number of international cooperation initiatives in support of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. South Africa is part of the Solidarity core protocol, which is an international study of treatments in hospitalised patients and includes a treatment clinical trial where diagnosed patients will receive treatment with drug regimens believed to have an effect. South Africa is also part of the debate by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that assesses the readiness and responses of countries in times of global emergencies. Views and ideas regarding diplomatic cooperation are being explored and collaboration with China is undertaken on the provision and production of vaccines, diagnostics, and equipment. DSI funded companies that are collaborating with countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to develop diagnostic reagents and to reduce the morbidity and mortality of health care workers through vaccinations. Biopharming partnerships between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Cape Bio Pharms are underway to produce plant-based highly potent anti-viral antibodies as an approach to vaccine development.

The progress to date:
DSI reported on the progress to date concerning diagnostics, testing, behavioural surveys, and satellite imagery provision, the development of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitizers, and in spheres of international cooperation by outlining the current work being done in this regard.

Regarding diagnostics, three local companies are gearing up to produce serological tests (Life Assay, Lateral Flow Laboratories, and Medical Diagnostech) and should be up and running by the middle of May 2020. Cape Bio Pharms will manufacture the raw proteins that will be provided to Lateral Flow Laboratories and Medical Diagnostech. Investors are already lined up to ensure production of raw proteins to have 20 million test kits available by December 2020. Cape Bio Pharms is able to produce PCR-reagents to ensure that 300 000 test kits are available by the first week of May, which can be scaled up to 3 million. Surveillance projects are ongoing and the results are evaluated every day as they become available from the labs.

Repurposed laboratories are now ready to provide testing facilities. The Centre for Proteomic and Genomic Research (CPGR) has validated various testing protocols. The CPGR will install a laboratory information management system as required by the National Health Laboratory Services. Testing is scheduled to commence in the week starting 20 April 2020. The KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in partnership with Centre of AIDS Programme for Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) have validated the quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) and sequencing protocols from two manufacturers for COVID-19 testing kits. CSIR labs have been repurposed to do testing in support of for government’s drive for massive rollout of testing and will be ready to do so by the week of 20 April 2020

KRISP are helping in executing the outbreak response at Netcare St Augustine using sequencing and phylogenetic analysis after the outbreak of COVID-19. The Eastern Cape Health Department requested KRISP to assist in understanding transmission dynamics following the outbreak at a correctional facility and asked it to come up with corrective and preventative action plans to mitigate similar occurrences in the future. The Humanities Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has continued to make headway in building an evidence-based survey on perceptions and behaviours. It is vital to recognise that the public’s perceptions and behaviours are continually changing as the conditions in the external environment change.

High-resolution satellite imagery is provided and spaza shops are mapped out to determine their proximity to each other and wholesalers. Certain shops that existed before the declaration of the pandemic will receive support stimulus packages. In addition, high-resolution satellite imager is provided in partnership with the Department on Human Settlement and Sanitation to identify the national human settlement layer and spatial distribution of population density, to identify open spaces and land use mapping within and around informal settlements, and to monitor the de-densification of informal settlements and housing development projects.

Regarding the development of PPE and sanitizers, the Product Development Technology Station at the Central University of Technology has been developing PPE that is specifically aimed at increasing airway protection device for healthcare workers. The eNtsa Programme at Nelson Mandela University is making 3D-printing face shield frames design and printing modifications to enable clinicians to easily replace standard A4 transparent sheets without the need for holes, adhesives, etc. Technology Stations have already started with the production of the first batch of 5 000 containers of hand sanitiser to be distributed to staff and to be placed at strategic points and to assist vulnerable communities.

South Africa has made significant progress in the sphere of international cooperation and has participated in UNESCO’s Virtual Ministerial Conference on the role of Open Science in the curbing of COVID-19. BRICS Science and Innovation partnerships are developed in response to the pandemic. Leadership is provided to the African Union’s science and innovation programmes. Co-funding is being organised with the European Union through a partnership aimed at helping developing countries with their clinical trials. Pan-African’s rapid response research programme engages 15 countries are being developed in an effort to understand the disease itself, its prevention and control, improving African health governance systems and to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of transmission and vulnerability. COVID-19 data science capabilities are being provided in Southern Africa with SKA Africa partnerships.

South Africa aims to roll out various energy solutions to support security deployments. Fuel cell systems are available to provide power to hospitals and facilities that are managed by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure as well as the Department of Defence. Solar technologies that have been developed through research funded by DSI are available to be deployed at police checkpoints to ensure that officials can charge their phones and electronic devices while they are out on duty.

The way forward requires continued support after the lockdown period and even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Support must be given to the local manufacturing of vaccines, PPE, ventilators, diagnostics, and reagents. Efforts around data generation, analyses, and decision support measures must be coordinated. Government must undertake local solutions and ensure improved engagements with provincial and local forms of government. The Committee was encouraged to peruse Annexure C at their own leisure to gain knowledge about the various ongoing projects and research at universities across South Africa in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof B Bozzoli (DA) thanked DHET and DSI for their presentations and the work they have done during this challenging period. However, the return to face-to-face teaching seems to be undetermined, DHET mentioned a possibility of a phased reintroduction to teaching at the end of July or at the end of September. The return to contact teaching should be sooner rather than later. What will happen with the teaching of practical courses at universities and colleges? When will the money be allocated to NSFAS should the academic year be extended? Could we have some more detailed plans in future meetings for universities as has been done for the TVET colleges? DHET also said nothing about importing the principles of social distancing in face-to-face teaching. It is quite a bombshell announcement by DSI about the drug that can be used. Is there any data so far regarding clinical trials that this is a genuinely useful drug or is this announcement purely speculative?

Mr W Letsie (ANC) affirmed the principle of ‘no student left behind’ and stressed the need to get more information about the NSFAS update. Are students being informed of their financial aid appeals being successful or being declined? Can DHET inform the Committee, which two publishers of TVET college textbooks have made their e-Guides available to students? How many TVET students are currently able to use the online functions?

Dr W Boshoff (FF+) welcomed the presentations. The digital connectedness of the society in South Africa is an example of the existing inequalities in our country. There is an absolute need to roll out better connectivity in all provinces. How is DHET and DSI addressing science and innovation entities not being able to continue their research or manufacturing processes (in aid of curbing the COVID-19 pandemic) due to these institutions not being regarded as an ‘essential service’ during lockdown? How can universities be expected to contribute as fully as they can when they are subjected those limitations? Can we explore the option of closing provincial borders? Three provinces (Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal) have reported the lowest numbers of COVID-19 infections. Does it not make sense to start resuming economic activity in those areas and start the reintroduction to face-to-face teaching in those areas sooner than in others? It must be ensured that students have materials and devices to access online resources. What are the plans to allow students to access the resources (such as lecture notes, textbooks, stationery) that they left behind in their student residences when they were unprepared for an extended lockdown?

Mr P Keetse (EFF) requested that DHET explore how deep the SETA crisis goes as mentioned by Minister Nzimande. The logic behind online learning must be explored. When institutions package their curriculum content and create their methodologies for online learning, many factors are taken into account. It looks like it is USAf putting pressure on DHET. Online learning will help students to understand concepts better and be able to revise materials in their own time. However, it seems like disadvantaged students are not taken into account. Perhaps institutions should be required to have set plans that outline how the year would proceed should we be forced to suspend face-to-face learning.

Mr B Nodada (DA) asked if DHET can give a report on the ICT capabilities for online learning at the various institutions. It has been reported that only eight out of the 26 universities are equipped (at least partially) to facilitate learning and none of the TVET colleges are able to do so. There are over 5 000 students currently on campuses. The University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of the Western Cape have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19. Have the students there been screened or tested? What are the capabilities of DHET and the Department of Health to ensure that campuses will be environmentally cleaned and tested? A cooperative governance approach is required and perhaps the Department of Communications should be involved in creating the spectrum dedicated to education. All of the plans should be aligned with DBE plans. The digitisation of our learning and teaching spaces must be fast tracked, but a quasi-approach must be adopted to address connectivity, lack of electricity, and the limited access to devices. Students cannot access zero-rated websites if they do not even have access to 3G network connectivity.

Mr Nodada asked for the cost implications of the adjusted academic year. More exact plans are required for universities on dates for examination periods and the costs of online learning. What are the plans in place to allow students to access the resources (such as lecture notes, textbooks, stationery) that they left behind in their student residences when they were unprepared for an extended lockdown? Could such a plan not aid in helping students access their own resources that they have been using for their studies?

Mr Nodada noted that TVET colleges have cancelled the third trimester. What are the implications of this for final-year students? What are the plans for tuition and accommodation fees paid by higher education students, which are not currently in use? Students cannot occupy the residence that they have paid for and must pay for their living costs out of their own pocket during the lockdown period. Reports are needed from the ministerial task team with detailed plans for the rest of the year.

Ms S Luthuli (EFF) noticed that KwaZulu-Natal is not ready for the lockdown period. There are students who do not have electricity, which makes online learning very difficult. How will DHET assist the students who are already behind in their work? The majority of these students do not have access to networks and many of them do not even own smart phones. Any proposed measures must be assessed to determine their reach to students. How sure are we that the students will be safe when we reopen institutions? There are students who have not been paid their NSFAS allowances or payment has not been made to institutions. It is of utmost importance that students are paid on time during the challenging lockdown period.

Mr M Bara (DA) emphasised the inequalities between universities and noted that some are better off than others. What interventions are currently aimed at the youth, some of whom are students at the universities and TVET colleges? DHET mentioned the zero-rating of educational websites and the provision of data to students, but universities are not on the same level. What measures are being put in place to address institutions that are not able to provide students with data or other resources? What consideration has been given to students awaiting the outcome of their appeals? Can NSFAS inform the students whose appeals have failed on what aspects of their application caused it to fail, and instruct students on how to correct it?

Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) emphasised the importance of the principle of ‘no student left behind’ to ensure that we do not entrench the inequalities already present in our society. We are seeing different institutions pulling in different directions. What are the risks for students in the loaning of devices? Can we put measures in place to ensure that students eventually end up owning the devices instead of just being loaned the device? Students who need the device now will need it in the future. How do we protect the legitimacy of our qualifications when we move towards a space of online learning? Can DHET monitor the housing of students during the lockdown period at CPUT? There have been serious challenges raised about the nutrition of these students. There is also a great need for DHET to have a conversation with network providers on their haphazard interventions in the sector. What is the feasibility of expanding the provincial efforts (as seen in Mpumalanga) to a national effort? How do we include medical students in the work DHET and DSI are currently doing to act as volunteers and gain experience in the field?

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) appreciated the work done by DHET and DSI. The private providers of accommodation need to be addressed. Some of these providers are losing income during lockdown. The Committee would like to see the gender demographics of those working with DHET and DSI on research and innovation COVID-19 projects. He asked how much financial aid is given by NSFAS and how their responses to students are finalised. How do indigenous knowledge systems participate in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic? How does DSI address the need of people who cannot afford to buy hand sanitizers? In communicating with students, one must use SMS to ensure that ‘no student gets left behind’.

Ms D Christians (DA) asked if the question papers for TVET colleges are being revised or if students will write the already drafted examination papers. They are usually set 18 months in advance. How will the large components of practical work be assessed? When will the next payments be made to TVET college studehts? DHET needs to sort out the status of students who are provisionally funded.

The Chairperson asked if any support is given to the students housed at CPUT. It is becoming clear that we do not know the trajectory of the academic year ahead. How are students supported at institutions that have lower capacities for online learning? We cannot allow the problems of colonialism and Apartheid to be perpetuated during this difficult time. What is the possibility of mapping out the libraries in the country and designating them as facilities that provide essential services to allow students to have access to such resources? The Committee needs a firmer grasp on the DHET responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and a breakdown of institution-by-institution is needed to map out what responses are being undertaken. The Chairperson thanked the MPs for raising their questions and concerns and invited Deputy Minister Manamela to respond.

Deputy Minister Buti Manamela replied that as indicated by Minister Nzimande the task teams have been in operation for just a few days before the lockdown has been declared and has been preoccupied with the discussion on how to save the 2020 academic year. Our discussions are crucial and centred on making suggestions on when we can continue with the 2020 academic year. DHET and DSI have been engaging with the Department of Health to generate guidelines on the cleaning of campuses for reopening and the testing of students and staff members. The generation and designation of quarantines sites have also been explored. It is important that all students should be able to access online learning resources, and it was unfortunate that some universities went ahead with the rollout of online learning even though it was not ensured that all students have access. Some institutions have given quite satisfactory responses and DHET is working towards ensuring that all institutions are ready to rollout distance learning by 4 May.

Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde expressed the importance that online learning must be accessible to all students. Any measure that is rolled out must take into account the unique learning environments and situations of the students. Guidelines are being developed for post-school further education institutions. Online learning platforms are also being developed while being mindful of the data costs. Students who cannot access online learning materials and resources must also be supported with the possibility of having additional classes for those students once face-to-face learning is reintroduced. Negotiations with data providers will be fast tracked to ensure that educational websites and materials are zero-rated. We need to create learning platforms that are accessible to all students. DHET is currently working towards determining the needs of individual students. Those students who cannot access online materials could be sent their course materials through courier service. This might be challenging as not all sectors are currently in operation and it is a very volatile situation.

Dr Diane Parker replied that surveys have been done at various institutions to identify their needs, and the Committee will be provided with a report on the survey results. A survey instrument has been sent out to all institutions for DHET to be updated on the plans for completing their academic years and curriculums. The actual scenarios for returning to campus is flexible and not entirely predictable. Institutions are expected to rollout and have online learning platforms and measures in place by May. Return to face-to-face learning will be through a phased-in approach where face-to-face learning can be resumed by July, or by August or by October 2020. The critical criteria must identified to determine whether students will be able to phase in earlier. It is dependent on the individual institutions that will be required to practice principles of social distancing and hygiene.

Ms Aruna Singh replied that the e-Guides for TVET colleges are available for download from Google Play Store. The completion of the third trimester will not take place in 2020, but in 2021. Students can register for the third trimester in January. Programmes on television are quite expensive, but broadcasts will be available and uploaded on college websites where they can be downloaded and used repeatedly. Other modalities will be explored by DHET. The question papers have been set in advance and whether they will be revised is being explored. Practical work is not tested in written examinations.

Dr Phil Mjwara reminded the Committee that DSI’s presentation was just centred on the progress made to date in terms of diagnostics, therapeutics, testing, PPE, and international cooperation. DSI will provide the Committee with a memorandum outlining the exact dates by which the various diagnostic, therapeutic and testing instruments are to be developed.

Minister Nzimande thanked the Committee for their oversight of DHET and DSI during these challenging times.

The Chairperson thanked DHET and DSI for the presentations and thanked the stakeholders and the public who attended the meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.

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