Saving the 2020 academic year: DHET, USAf, SAUS, SAFETSA, Deputy Minister

Higher Education, Science and Technology

24 June 2020
Chairperson: Mr P Mapulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, 24 JUNE 2020

The Committee received presentations from the Department of Higher Education and Training, Universities South Africa (USAf), South African Union of Students and the South African Further Education and Training Student’s Association (SAFETSA) on campus readiness and return dates for students.

All universities had developed costed campus readiness plans. Of the 50 public universities, 22 had submitted plans and the others would come within the next day. The length of the 2020 academic year would depend on the announcement of Alert Level 1. DHET hoped the academic year would end by March 2021 with worst case scenario being April. It agreed the fee for academic year for learning and accommodation had to stay the same. NSFAS allowances would be modelled for an extended academic year.

The Technical and Vocational, Educating and Training (TVET) 2020 Academic Year would spill over to 2021 due to the practical nature of its examinations. The national average of readiness for return is 97% or above.

The Community Education and Training (CET) college sector still had to issue its revised academic calendar. The original return date for students had been extended as it was not ready to open but the sector had since achieved a national readiness of 89.2%.

The USAf presentation aligned with the DHET presentation. It stated that there were numerous institutional and student challenges with the shift to online learning. It had put in interventions for psycho-social support, health and safety and enabling remote learning. USAf stated that the academic year could not be completed through online teaching alone and therefore the academic year would be reconstituted to allow for some face-to-face learning.

SAUS outlined the status of each university after consulting with the SRCs of each. It raised concern about several cases where Student Representative Councils (SRCs) had not been adequately consulted and about the lack of provision of data and laptops to students. It made various recommendations.

SAFETSA which represented the SRCs of TVET colleges raised concern about National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allowances not being paid and challenges concerning E-Learning and private student accommodation. Inequality and its effect on disadvantaged students were highlighted.

The challenge of positive Covid-19 cases affecting teaching and learning once campuses reopened was an overarching concern for all entities.

Members were dissatisfied with the Department and USAf presentations as they did not provide specific details per institution as requested. The Committee required this detailed information to ensure no student was left behind and to truly grasp disparities in and between institutions. The Committee was assured that the detailed information about institutions would be made available to the Committee.

Members asked questions about the procurement of laptops by NSFAS and institutions, the reliance on Covid-19 screening versus testing, fees remaining the same, consultations with teaching staff, connectivity challenges and the 33% of students who could return to campus during Lockdown Level 3.
 

Meeting report

Opening remarks
The Chairperson welcomed the Department, USAf, SAUS and SAFETSA Working Group and noted apologies from the Minister. This was the last scheduled briefing on plans to save the 2020 Academic Year. However, each quarter would require an engagement with the Department and other stakeholders to determine progress in line with the principle adopted that no one would be left behind. Going forward all the Committee would continue engaging with DHET and stakeholders. Time would be managed strictly as there were multiple presentations. He requested that only the most important issues in the presentations be addressed. He noted that the Director General was struggling to connect and he might join later. The Deputy Minister would join the meeting as well and asked him to make opening comments.

Mr Babulele Bingwa, Ministry Parliamentary Liaison Officer, noted the Deputy Minister was still to join.

Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) presentation
Universities

Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director General: University Education, said the key principles in this process was to save lives, save the academic year and maximise opportunities for success. This aligned directly with the Chairperson’s statement that all students were taken along and had a fair chance of succeeding.

Covid-19 risk adjusted strategy for the completion of the 2020 Academic Year
A risk adjusted strategy through the different lockdown levels had been adopted. The university system had developed three systems with multi-modal teaching and learning plans, campus readiness plans and all institutions had plans for staff and students phased returns. She could not provide all the details of these plans but could say that all universities had plans in place. The costing of these plans had been worked through as well.

The Department created the Covid-19 Responsiveness Grant (CRG) to support institutions from reprioritised funds that could be approved for reprioritisation. There was a major problem in terms of the fiscus but the Department had worked to identify funds The first grant had been supported and all institutions were implementing their plans accordingly.

As the lockdown levels decease there was a move from remote teaching and learning to contact teaching and learning. Based on what was known about the virus, at every point health and safety (H&S) would be a concern and therefore physical distancing and social solidarity had to be considered. Therefore, when a 100% of the students returned in Level 1 there would still be a large amount of blended learning rather than the usual large class learning.

A gazette on the regulations and criteria for students to return was published on 8 June. All institutions had been planning the return of 33% students from 17 June according to this and each organisation had its own dates for when different student groups would return. Of importance was that each institution had plans and was communicating with students and providing students with permits for travelling. So far out of all the institutions 22 return-to-campus plans had been received. Of those submitted three institutions asked for deviations from the criteria. One had not been approved and the other two had. Generally, all institutions were managing the process accordingly from a H&S and teaching and learning perspective.

Multi Modal as a mix of remote and contact learning
Every institution had fostered a multimodal plan and the CRG had been approved. Some institutions were working altogether on print-based teaching and learning methods whereas others worked on online teaching and learning. The slide illustrated that each institution had a different mix of ways it was supporting students over the period of lockdown. This would continue as students returned.

Campus readiness plans (H&S)
All universities have developed costed campus readiness plans. The Department will support the following items through the second phase CRG (reprioritised earmarked grants): requirements for environmental and regular cleaning in line with the H&S protocols, personal protective equipment (PPE), internal isolation and quarantine and external facilities, clinical support, screening stations and equipment and transport for students to ensure physical distancing when transporting them to clinical platforms or other legitimate university activities.

Criteria for return to university and private higher education institutions (PHEI) campuses
All institutions had to implement the regulations and 22 institutions had submitted plans and the others would come within the next day. So far according to the analysis, all institutions had put in place H&S protocols and were meeting criteria for various other aspects. More details from specific institutions were still required.

Return of students
Dr Parker went through the risk adjusted strategy and outlined the activities allowed on campus and those students who were allowed to return. It was a phased in approach and institutions had provided dates and details. The main issue was the groups of students returning and as indicated only two had asked for deviations. This not only covered public institutions but also PHEI. Yesterday was the date that PHEIs had to submit plans and 80 of 136 plans were received. DHET was looking at a similar process of approving deviations if they fitted in with the 33% process.

All students would only return in Level 2 and protocols would still be in place. Social solidarity remained a major issue because everybody had to take their part in ensuring H&S. The key issue was the return of international students who had been out of the country during this period.

Support for poor and working class students
All multimodal plans include support for NSFAS and missing middle students for data (30G data bundles per month) funded through the CRG. All NSFAS students continue to receive their living and transport allowances during lockdown (while learning remotely). NSFAS students will be supported for the extended academic year. NSFAS students will be supported with digital learning devices – process underway though NSFAS (utilising learning material allowances). There were only nine institutions that could not procure previously and would still be using central process through NSFAS. Where possible institutions have also planned to provide missing middle students with devices on loan-to-buy schemes

University Academic Year and Fees
There were a number of scenarios that built in flexibility for different groups. The staggered return of students would result in the academic year crossing over to the 2021 calendar year. DHET hoped the academic year would end by March 2021 at latest with worst case scenario being April. This would have a knock-on effect on the next academic year which was likely to be compressed. There was proposal for a national framework which was being discussed through USAf and private housing associations to ensure a way to deal with the financial pressure linked to the process. The basic proposal was that DHET agreed that the fee for academic year for learning and accommodation had to stay the same. NSFAS allowances would be modelled for an extended period - once the fee agreement was in place it would help with limiting costs. NSFAS would speak about the learning devices matter. There were processes on an institutional level to deal with funding

Other issues
A number of gazettes had been published. The Minister and Deputy Minister have visited a number of campuses over the past two weeks to check the readiness both universities and TVET colleges. In general it was found that they were adhering to the protocols and meeting expectations with very few exceptions.

Higher Health had provided extensive support to institutions on guidelines and protocols as well as training and support to staff and students. DHET was grateful for Higher Health’s work across the entire system.

A monitoring tool had been developed to be administered every two weeks to update on readiness of institutions and teaching and learning implementation and return to campus plans. Institutions were expected to submit the first report on 26 June and thereafter bi-monthly reports to the Minister.

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges
Ms Aruna Singh, DHET Acting Deputy Director General: TVET, presented.

Dates for the return of TVET College students
There were different return dates for the different TVET students and it was extremely staggered. Semester students would return tomorrow and National Certificate Vocational (NCV) students would not be back until July. The last grouping of NCV students would return by the end of July. For the academic year this meant, that Trimester 3 could not take place in 2020 and will instead spill over into 2021, from Jan-April 2021. Semester 2 would also move into 2021 as exams had to be staggered to provide for social distancing.

The full requirements for Internal Continuous Assessments could be accommodated, including provision for practical learning. National Examinations have been re-scheduled to accommodate the return of students and takes into account completion of the teaching in each programme. Three sessions per qualification will be held to allow for social distancing.

The academic calendar for the second half of the year has been revised, due to the revisions made to the first half of the year. The calendar was distributed to colleges and stakeholders at the end of May 2020. Due to the staggered return of students by 19 June 53% of campuses had opened and by 25 June 93% of campuses would be open with 17% closed, all of those closed would be for NCV. The presentation detailed the return of students.

Protocols for the return of students
There would be daily screening at all sites of learning for staff and students. Higher Health had played a remarkable role in the colleges and trained staff virtually before campuses opened. The Health Check app was widely used by students but there was still manual screening. Sanitisers were provided at all entry points as well as throughout learning spaces. Student packs (masks and soaps) were provided.

Classes were split in half to allow for social distancing. Colleges were allowed to timetable this arrangement in a way that they find manageable (such as morning and afternoon sessions, alternate days for face-to-face and remote learning support). The focus would be on practical learning and optimal utilization of workshops, computer labs and practicum rooms as vocational studies were not tenable through online means. The credibility of site-based assessments were to be protected given that national exams were held. A circular had been issued this week on the matter.

State of Colleges’ readiness based on a checklist (as at 19 June 2020)
A checklist had been developed made up of 40 items in five categories: communication, Covid-19 cases, occupational H&S, operational, teaching and learning. The Covid-19 category was the most important as it asked questions such as if there was a steering committee, reporting mechanisms, provisions for quarantine and self-isolation. The questions in this category were intensive. The operational category asked questions on budgets, staff and reorganizing. The checklist was a self-assessment tool administered on a weekly basis to all 50 colleges. The colleges had to report per campus and each week DHET received status information on each college which covered about 270 campuses. This would have been the fifth week that the colleges responses were tracked.

A slide indicated the percentage at which the measures were in place for each category. The national average of readiness was 97% or above. There was an overall high level of readiness and 60% of all colleges had already achieved 100% in all categories. 17 campuses still had to open in July.

Provincial readiness
Across the provinces, colleges scored well in communication but it varied in other categories.

College ranking in terms of overall readiness
A slide indicated which colleges achieved 100% readiness by 19 June with a good number of colleges above 90%. Only Ingwe TVET college was below 90% readiness which had multiple challenges which were not necessarily related to its readiness efforts but issues with the community and cleaners. The community had breached the boundary to collect water from the borehole and demanded contractual work. The matters were being dealt with and the college was due to open Monday.

As colleges opened, challenges arose as they had to shut down again due to Covid-19 cases.

Learning support initiatives in place
The online learning support initiatives began in April. The National Open Learning System had been important and instrumental with the uploading of national exam preparation material. Other learning support initiatives began in April as well.

Ms Singh said that the broadcasts were only on DSTV as it was more affordable as SABC was extremely expensive to run the televised lessons on but there were negotiations in place. DHET would looked into broadcasting for the future beyond Covid-19 as well. Radio lesson broadcasts began in Mpumalanga but it has grown across colleges.

The point of emphasis was that all students received textbooks as it was the most valuable tool for students to navigate learning. This had remained a key driver for supporting students remotely. If a student truly wanted to study and commit, the textbooks were incredibly valuable.

Some immediate challenges
Ms Singh said that the presentation slide did not prove a full list of challenges.

• Covid-19 positive cases were on the increase and caused campuses to shut down for decontamination. This is caused operational instability which was difficult to manage and was also becoming extremely expensive especially as the allocations colleges had received for Covid-19 had been spent at this stage.

• Large numbers of staff in colleges fell under the category of comorbidities and therefore could not be on duty. Managing classes was therefore difficult and something management had to deal with as it could incur exorbitant costs to find replacements. Some staff were, however, abusing the self-isolation as a means to get time off. Positive cases could be tracked and verified but cases where staff stated they had been in contact with somebody who had Covid-19 were difficult to verify. This was on the increase and caused frustration.

• Students were resistant to returning unless they received laptops and that this culture of demand was unhelpful in normalising the learning environment. The premise of completing the academic year in the TVET system was not based on the use of devices. It was premised on accessible mechanisms and the return to campuses. There was always provision that students would receive some face-to-face learning before examinations were written. Not all students would get devices, and this remained a challenge.

Community Education and Training (CET) colleges
Dr Bheki Mahlobo, Acting Deputy DG: CET, DHET, was told there was limited time remaining and he requested that in future CET present separately from other Department branches.

CET College planned return
The dates had been scheduled according to the Minister's announcement on 23 April and the dates of returns for staff and students were outlined. The academic programme had been aligned with the Department of Basic Education due to shared infrastructure. A timeline for critical activities for opening colleges was outlined as well.

Monitoring Progress towards readiness
• Presentation of the progress report in the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) on the Response to Covid 19
• Meetings with the regional managers
• Meeting with College Management to track progress
• Meeting with College Council Chairs to highlight their role in preparing institutions. Dr Mahlobo said that this was important as this was where the reprioritisation of budget was discussed.

CET Colleges state of readiness as at 29 May 2020
There was a questionnaire similar to the TVET system based on the NCID and Higher Health checklist.

The situation was bad, and the system was not ready at 29 May. DHET then advised the Minister that the system was not ready to open as the Basic Education sites also had to be assessed for readiness. New dates for resuming the academic year were then revised.

Rationale for extension
The following areas were not yet finalised:
• Cleaning, fumigation and disinfection of learning sites
• Dealing with staff over 60 years of age and those with co-morbidities
• Procurement, delivery/distribution of Covid 19 essentials to all centres
• Training of centre managers by Higher Health
• Identification of centres with sanitation and dilapidation to advise Councils to close them
• Negotiating with Provincial Education Departments (PEDs) for continued utilisation of schools
• Engagement between Regional Managers, CET college principals and principals of hosting schools prioritising the shared utilisation of cleaning services.

Average Performance of National Categories
By 19 June the state of readiness of CET colleges gave DHET the indication that if they did open up they would be able to handle some of the challenges.

Comparison of CET Colleges on their readiness
• Mpumalanga CET College data was not captured but by last week it was already at 87% readiness.
• North West was the only college of concern as it had challenges with sanitation, infrastructure and ablution facilities. DHET and College management and council were paying attention to the situation.
• The national readiness of CET colleges to return back was 89.2%.

Challenges requiring DHET attention:
• A revised academic calendar to be issued by 26 June 2020
• Staff at 60 year of age and above (employer directive)
• Staff with uncontrolled co-morbidities (employer directive)
• Unsuitable infrastructure: dilapidation, water and sanitation and access to school infrastructure
• Appointment of cleaners for centres
• Sharing of screening services with PEDs with the support of Higher Health
• School temporary closures due to vandalism or detection of new infections at the learning sites
• 1.5 m physical distancing and additional staff and classrooms to deal with the spill-over classes
• Impact on the conditions of services: Is there an overtime regime
• What are the financing and funding implications for the employer

Dr Mahlobo said the nature of the sector was one where the level of inequality became apparent as there were high levels of neglect. Whatever was attempted would result in challenges if there was no investment in this sector.

Deputy Minister’s remarks
Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, said he had joined the meeting late as he had received a link to a different meeting. It could be gathered from the Department presentations that a number of institutions had now reopened through the risk adjusted phased-in approach. There had been minimum instances of Covid-19 cases being reported.

A lot had been done by DHET and institutions to ensure readiness and all institutions should be able to welcome students. DHET had physically gone to some of the institutions together with the Minister to ensure readiness. There were some challenges that some institutions had to address such as cleaning of facilities and finalizing support and other interventions. The overall sense was that most institutions were able to meet the challenge and reopen.

Universities South Africa (USAf) presentation
Prof Sibongile Muthwa, USAf Chairperson, introduced Prof Ahmed Bawa, USAf CEO, the USAf executive committee and the Vice Chancellors of Central University of Technology, Rhodes University, UNISA and University of Pretoria. Her presentation had overlaps with Dr Parker’s as it was working closely with DHET.

Introduction
• Closure of universities in mid-March with discovery of Covid-19 cases at two universities.
• Unprecedented stress test on the academic and administrative systems.
• Significant collaboration between the DHET and universities to address the challenges being manifest.
• The need to embark on emergency teaching highlighted the extent of inequality between institutions.
• Significant repurposing of research and innovation to support the Covid-19 emergency.
• Short-term instability and financial sustainability was of significant concern.

National State of Disaster: 15 March
• Temporary closure of all institutions of learning. Negotiations with students on closure, with assistive arrangements for students to return home.
• Approximately 6 000 students remained in residences.
• Each institution was required to put in place a communication strategy
• University health services & clinics began preparations to deal with Covid-19 cases.
• Gatherings of more than 100 were not allowed, essentially excluding the continuation of face-to-face teaching. New approaches would be necessary.

Working Collectively
• Regular meetings of the Covid-19 Response MTT, chaired by Deputy Minister.
• Regular meetings with DHET, Council on Higher Education (CHE), Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), National Research Fund (NRF) and epidemiologists.
• Universities are working with the local health departments.
• Working closely with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), National Department of Health (NDoH) and Higher Health.
• Active intra-sector engagement through USAf.
• All universities had communication strategies in place.

Continuous engagement
• Creation of institutional Covid-19 response teams – inclusive of staff and student representation.
• Engagement with organised labour about HR adjustments.
• Engagements with DHET to establish capacity of institutions to offer alternative learning and support, to arrive at agreement on how to complete academic year and to address NSFAS subsidy funding.
• Engagements with the MTT with a special focus on the deep institutional inequalities.

Pathways to the complementation of 2020 Academic Year
There were multiple pathways to complete the academic year. The Higher Education landscape remains uneven with systemic inequalities requiring a multi-track single approach for academic year completion. While face-to-face teaching is constrained during the lockdown, different forms of alternative teaching/learning are being rolled out. The 2020 Academic Year would be reconstituted to ensure that all students have a fair chance through face-to-face learning and blended learning to complete the year.

A three-pronged approach to the 2020 Academic Year
• Multimodal learning during the lockdown period which would be continuing.
• Preparation of campuses for return of students.
• Phased-in return of students depending on the level of the lockdown.

Migrating teaching online
• Inequality was the biggest challenge in and between institutions with challenges in IT platforms, learning management system (LMS) platforms, staff capacity and resources.
• Student challenges were devices, data & connectivity, study-conducive home environments, preparedness for ‘online’ learning and psycho-social pressures. There was an upsurge of psycho-social challenges that students displayed.

Enabling remote online learning
• Devices: Mechanisms created via DHET for NSFAS students. University loan systems for other students including missing middle students.
• Data: Universities procured data for students but this was unsustainable. NSFAS students will be covered by DHET deal with Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).
• Vulnerable students will return to residences at earliest point to ensure access to internet, devices and support to engage in blended learning.
• Additional interventions: Some universities have opted for a materials-based intervention involving the delivery to students of paper-based materials. These have already been distributed.

Lockdown Level 4
Final-year Health Science students returned so they could safely engage in clinical training. Preparations were made for Level 3 particularly public health interventions. There was consolidation of the multimodal learning platforms (presented to DHET and for which funding has been repurposed).

Level 3: Phased return of students to campus
Guidelines: One third of students return by 14 June. And one third of residence students. Universities had prepared for safe reintroduction of students and staff following DHET guidelines. Students who can study from home are encouraged to do so. This is to increase the number of vulnerable students returning to residences and facilities. On campus, there will be emphasis on technology-based blended learning, except for experimental courses and clinical training.

Which students to return
Those returning were students in their final year, those requiring access to laboratories, students in all years doing clinical training, postgraduate students requiring access to laboratories and specialised equipment. Universities may also bring back students experiencing difficulties studying in home environments. Universities are allowed to request a deviation or add categories of students which some had done.

Public Health Preparations by Universities for Return of Students
The presentation outlined these steps and universities will report on a bimonthly basis to DHET.

Psycho-social support
This is a time of great stress and anxiety for students and staff. There were three interventions:
• Higher Health has instituted an online facility for counseling which is available to all students.
• Some universities have established their own facilities for online counseling.
• USAf and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) have embarked on a sector-wide survey aimed at producing data to allow for evidence-based interventions at the campus level.

Building a social compact
Rigorously implemented public health interventions will be only as strong at the overall participation of students and staff in preventing the spread of the virus. This cannot be policed. There was therefore an urgent project of developing a social compact between staff, students and university administration to combat the spread of the virus.

Reconstitution of the 2020 Academic Year
Each university will reconstitute the academic year to ensure that students have a fair chance to complete it.
The academic year usually comprises 27-28 weeks of academic engagement. This likely means completing 2020 Academic Year in early 2021.

Short-term risks
• Uncontrolled campus outbreaks of Covid-19
• Financial risks due to 2020 subsidy payment deferment resulting in cash flow challenges and potential loss of tuition fees and residence fee income.
• Unexpected expenditure on: emergency learning needs – data and devices; public health interventions.

Infrastructure projects
Several universities had infrastructure projects that ground to a halt during the lockdown. This caused significant budget overruns due to pre-lockdown deployment of heavy machinery and cranes. In Level 4 these were allowed to continue. The universities were calculating the cost of delays and penalties.

Sustainability risk scenarios due to Covid-19
• Potential decline in subsidy funding in future due to impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on economy.
• Significant negative impact on research funding.
• Potential decline in absorption of graduates in economy.
• Lingering outbreaks of Covid-19 in the absence of a vaccine / treatment protocols.

Sustainability work
The USAf Funding Strategy Group and Finance Executives’ Forum are developing:
• a dashboard facility that alerts university administrators to key short-term and long-term risks.
• a conceptual document that plots out possible scenarios of a post-Covid-19 environment.

South African Union of Students (SAUS) presentation
Mr Misheck Mugabe, SAUS President, said that DHET had consulted students since the beginning of lockdown and they were in the MTT to ensure the views of students were expressed. It commended DHET for its recognition of and consultation with students. He also commended some universities for producing and providing PPE and sanitizers. All 26 SRC presidents had been consulted before the meeting and their submissions on measures implemented by universities informed the presentation.

Covid-19 was affecting universities and existing inequalities in historically disadvantaged universities were highlighted. Covid-19 affected student activism and student elections were postponed at some universities which in turn appointed interim structures. The fear was universities would not be able to appoint student representatives which would affect accountability. This should be noted and perhaps discussed going forward. Covid-19 deepened mental health concerns and a number of other issues.

Phased-in return of students
SRC members were consulted by university management in identifying the 33% of students except Central University of Technology (CUT) and University of South Africa (UNISA). The University of Zululand (UNIZULU) did not have an SRC. Most SRC members are part of the Covid-19 task teams at universities preparing for the phased-in return of students except Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and UNISA SRCs. He asked the Committee write to these universities to ensure students were included.

The return of students had started in some universities. For example, North West University (NWU), University of Free State (UFS) and University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) have 33% of students already on campus; whilst University of Joburg (UJ) , Stellenbosch University (SU), Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), Rhodes University (RU), CPUT, University of Cape Town (UCT), University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Nelson Mandela University (NMU) started with certain cohorts.

Most universities are yet to commence with the return of students. For example, University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) will start on 29 June, UNISA not clear, University of Limpopo (UL) 29 June, Sol Plaatjie University (SPU) on 26 June, University of Fort Hare (UFH) 1 July, University of Mpumalanga (UMP) 29 June.

Some universities have not issued permits to the 33% students and travelling difficulties are noted. Walter Sisulu University (WSU) & UFH students had not yet received a permit to travel. This created concern.

Devices and connectivity
• Some students are receiving data and laptops. For example, at UKZN almost all first years received laptops and at SPU all students have laptops; UJ, UCT, WITS, NMU, RU provided laptops & data, SU all students who requested laptops received them.
• Most universities have not provided students with data such as MUT & UMP. This was concerning.
• Most universities have not provided students with laptops such as UNISA, UFH & CPUT.
• Inadequate laptops and data were cited. For example, at UL only 12k out of 22k students received laptops, WITS only 5k laptops were distributed, UFS only 3500 laptops were procured. UWC only 50% of students who requested laptops received them. At NWU some students are still waiting. At WSU 7000 students are not sure if they will receive laptops.

Online learning commenced in all universities. For example, UCT online learning started on 20 April 2020, but UMP SRC took a stance to boycott online learning until laptops are distributed to all students. There had to be a follow up on the situation at UMP.

Connectivity remains a challenge for many students because data distribution is very slow, inefficient and inconsistent. For example, SPU students have not received data for last month. Free zero rated learning sites are not accessible. For example, UL, WITS & UJ complained about limited sites; UFS.

H&S Measures
• They asked universities to allow SRC members to return to campus early to monitor level of preparedness.
• Most institutions are ready for the return of students, residences undergone deep cleaning and disinfecting.
• Some universities will take students into a compulsory 14 day quarantine such as UCT. UCT’s approach should be modelled by other universities.
• Progress is slow with deep cleaning at MUT. USAf and the Committee should note this.
• Residence rules were amended such as students cannot visit each other.
• Cleaning staff and residence security have been provided with PPEs.
• Universities are making their own PPEs and students are part of the manufacturing of sanitizers and masks in universities. CPUT purchased 22000 PPEs for students. It was good that students were part of this.
• Campus shuttles & transportation to clinical sites underwent disinfecting & sterilization.
• Libraries have been fumigated and re-opened.
• Students with co-morbidities are not forced back to campus and measures are being put in place for them to finish their studies.
• Students who are returning are being screened thoroughly.
• Compulsory health protocols are in place such as the compulsory wearing of masks.
SAUS noted there was progress on H&S.

Conclusion and Recommendations
• SAUS recommends academic exclusion be suspended for this year due to Covid-19 (SU has done so).
• Universities must allow all SRC members back on campus and include them in task teams. For example, UCT & WSU management are refusing to allow SRC back to campus. Some universities had complied with this but there was concern about those who did not allow the return of SRC members.
• UNISA must be included in all the interventions that other university students are receiving.
• For E-Learning to thrive, universities must be more efficient in distributing laptops and data to students.
• SAUS recommends a waiver of the N+2 rule for the 2020 academic year due to the Covid-19 impact.
• Re-configuration of the fee structure (residences costs and distance learning cost variations).
• Self-funded students must be allowed to de-register from residences. NMU students are being denied this.
• Universities had to allow students with special cases at home to return as part of the 33%. This had to be monitored as some were being denied this. At UMP 37 special case students are being denied return.
• All students had to continue receiving allowances. For example, UFS Qwaqwa campus are being denied their accommodation allowances & University of Venda (UNIVEN) was deducting the money for data from the monthly NSFAS living allowance. MUT discontinued payment of allowances for semester students.
• SAUS recommends that one residence at each university is identified as a quarantine facility for students instead of returning them back home as advised by Higher Health.
• SAUS recommends that the Ministry should not visit universities/colleges to check state of readiness, without stakeholders such as this Committee, students and labour unions for a collective view without bias.
• SAUS recommends that the Committee make Vice Chancellors more accountable as internal stakeholders are being undermined as Covid-19 conditions do not allow effective activism and mobilisation.
• SAUS recommends that this Committee give timeframes to NSFAS for the procurement of laptops to be expedited because without that laptops would arrive in December.

The Chairperson said the presentation clarified institution specific issues.

South African Further Education & Training Student’s Association (SAFETSA) working group
Mr Simphiwe Khumalo, SAFETSA Working Group representative, said he represented TVET SRCs.

NSFAS
The sector has been engulfed with NSFAS issues ever since the NSFAS Wallet (Cellbux) that was rejected by university, was disposed to the TVET sector. The system posed challenges and continues to do so. While they acknowledge the system put in place in the form of NSFAS Connect to try and resolve pending issues, the challenges still persist. The students are charged R10 per withdrawal which is more expensive than any other bank charges and is exploitative. The allowances of students were being reversed from student account before students were able to withdraw them.

Pending appeals have not yet been resolved. A number of students had not received their allowances and SAFETSA hoped the Committee would recommend that the matter be resolved.

Extension of Report 191 allowances (Trimester 1 and Semester 1) since Trimester 1 students are gradually returning to campuses without receiving their allowances that will enable them to attend classes.

NSFAS students appreciate all measures put in place for them to conclude their academic activities, however they feel they will not cope under these conditions and wish to deregister without financial implications. SAFETSA pleaded to the Committee to provide means to assist students to deregister on their own merits without facing financial implications.

E-Learning
E-learning has been one the proposed plans in trying to save the academic year. From its initial proposal the plan seeks to favour the haves, while disadvantaging the haves not. This discriminated between those who stay in the suburbs with high network reception and those in rural places with low network reception. SAFETSA holds the view that the E-Learning method can only be effective once the inequalities amongst the students of laptops and data are addressed. The slow procurement of laptops acted as a hindrance for students to use this study method. Issuing of data to students also remained a major problem.

Conducive Student accommodation
This pandemic has exposed the inability of the TVET sector to secure a conducive and a safe student accommodation for students. Students are being gradually sent back to the slaughter houses which are neither fumigated nor sanitized. These slaughter houses are packing students in numbers, in a manner that does not allow social distancing.

The lockdown regulations harshly affected informal trade which the majority of parents of students rely on. This left many students unable to pay their rent. Now ruthless landlords do not want to release the belongings of students. SAFETSA therefore recommends that DHET and affected institutions liaise with local municipalities to force compliance at the private accommodation. Secure alternative accommodation and source out funding and create a relief bag to cover for those students who are unable to get their belongings due to the outstanding rental fee.

Campuses status and teaching and learning
The majority of TVET campuses have met the required compliance standards, while some are still behind. Students are being screened daily at the gate and being sanitized. Students have received reusable masks. There are some campuses that are not yet operational which is a challenge to those students left behind.

Students with temperatures of 38° and those who receive self-isolate results from Higher Health get left behind. Lecturers who are sent home due to the screening results cause many sessions not to be held. There are positive cases that have been detected which caused some campuses to shut down.

SAFETSA therefore recommends that there must be TV screens / projectors at campus that will enable lecturers to record their sessions and broadcast in class when they cannot access campus. Also record every session in class so that those students who could not access campus can catch-up.

In conclusion, Mr Mugabe said the goal was to save lives and the academic year while leaving no students behind. A SAFETSA national task team needed to be created so it could have a single coordinated voice and be incorporated in oversight.

Discussion
The Chairperson said the SAUS presentation was helpful as it moved from the general to the particular in the institutions whereas the USAf and Department’s presentations were general. When the Committee issued the invitation it expected to receive information about particular institutions not general information. He was disappointed as he thought there would be information per institution instead of general principles.

Mr P Keetse (EFF) welcomed the reports. He proposed that the Portfolio Committee return to Parliament and conduct its business there. Engagements on this matter were important and required extensive engagement. This Committee was comprised of younger people and it did not have many old people therefore its return to Parliament had to considered. There was not sufficient time for a response by the entities.

Mr Keetse agreed with the Chairperson about the USAf and DHET presentations. They were not specific and not what was expected. This was the same content the Committee had heard before. He asked USAf if there was comprehensive consultation with lecturers, Vice Chancellors and HODs. Many lecturers would agree with him that there was a big problem with teaching and learning under the current restrictions. These academics highlighted that they had not seen any improvement. If the academic year were to be saved, a bogus academic year would be saved. Challenges with connectivity was a serious problem and affected student academic work. If DHET had been given a mandate to present on a certain matter and did not do this, it had to be stopped at the start of its presentation and told to give the necessary information. It was important for the Committee to go back and meet at Parliament so that the issues could be dealt with thoroughly as the entities would be unable to respond given the time constraints of the virtual meeting.

Mr W Letsie (ANC) said he could not welcome the reports especially from DHET. He agreed that SAUS had assisted the Committee with institution-specific information. On 21 April the Committee requested DHET provide full details of online learning. DHET was told to create a survey on ICT capabilities and online learning state of readiness per institution. On 14 May the same concern was raised with DHET. If you went to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) website and listened to the meeting, it would show that the Committee did not accept what DHET presented and requested a detail breakdown of each institution. He agreed with the Chairperson and Mr Keetse that DHET was not assisting. The Committee might end up agreeing that students should return without accounting for each and every student. Perhaps the Committee had to develop a form on items such as laptops and internet connectivity for each university. It had to be per institution so that all students could be accounted for.

What was the status of online learning in TVET colleges? It looked promising from Gert Sibande TVET college where there was an application that assisted online learning and assistance. He asked Ms Singh to comment and said that perhaps DHET had to assist other colleges to do the same.

He wanted to say categorically he did not support the creation of a monopoly on the procurement of devices such as laptops. He appealed to those responsible for procurement not to allow a monopoly. When NSFAS opened the bid on 26 June, it should not be encouraged to have one big company providing devices but SMMEs as well.

Are students being tested when returning to campus or was there a reliance on screening? In schools there were cases which caused schools to close. What happens when someone is honest to enough to say they were in contact with someone who had the virus? Did the institution close or isolate students until results were received? Can each TVET and university verify that each student had internet connectivity?

He asked USAf how many universities had closed down due to Covid cases. He requested a breakdown of the number of staff and students who tested positive per university. He thanked the students who had assisted in giving the Committee an idea of what was happening in the sector as USAf and DHET had not.

Prof B Bozzoli (DA) asked why UNISA was not at the forefront as it was a distance learning university. It was not clear why students needed laptops if it was distance learning university and what the situation was there.

On fees remaining the same, she asked how universities and accommodation could afford to continue going on the same funds from a 10-month year to a 16-month year. She did not agree with criticism of the DHET presentation as it did indicate specific institution information. Admittedly not in as great detail as the students had given but she did not know if the presentation was about monitoring or simply reporting to the Committee about university state of readiness.

She also did not agree with the SAFETSA presentation as most of it were instructions on what had to be done and she found this tone unsettling. Parliament could be requested to do things but the tone of instruction was objectionable.

The details presented about different universities and where they succeed and failed was very interesting. She wondered if these matched up with DHET’s statement about universities that applied for deviations or did not meet criteria particularly WSU and UFH.

Mr W Boschoff (FF+) asked if deviation requests were to open up more quickly or slowly. On prevalence of online lecturers, he said some students preferred working material supplemented by lectures. Were there universities that were podcasting or streaming lectures?

On CET, he said there was a dire lack of investment in this area. He was pessimistic of this being rectified soon. Ms Singh mentioned the demand culture was not helping as it stopped institutions from opening previously and then was vastly amplified by the Covid crisis.

Mr B Nodada (DA) asked if the work of the MTT had been completed or if it was still continuing. Had the Ministry engaged with Ministry of Communications on the spectrum?

Some of the suggestions brought forward by students had to taken up and the involvement of stakeholders was important for creating a full picture of what was happening.

He asked the DHET if there was feedback and a breakdown of the online capabilities per institution as this would assist with oversight and future planning for digitizing the classroom. Was there an analysis of zero-rated websites and their traffic? If not, he requested one. What support had been given to the 'missing middle' students? Was there a breakdown of students had devices in all TVETs and university institutions? There had to be guidance on who was carrying out the procurement process for the devices.

To USAf, he asked who had been prioritised for the 33% of students who could return to campus. Were there guideline criteria? He had recently been to a school in his constituency where there was a large number of positive cases due to negligence as the students who returned to the hostels were not tested. Were students returning to residences being tested, and not just screened, as well as quarantined?

He asked USAf if there was a plan in place considering academic exclusions versus applications versus the intake for next year. The SAFETSA and SAUS recommendations had to be given to DHET to be reviewed.

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) welcomed the presentations and said that she had been covered by Mr Letsie, the Chairperson and Mr Keetse. She said Ms Singh's statement about the demand culture was not fair based on the Minister’s commitment that devices would be delivered. It was not correct that when people had to be served such wording was used. She was not comfortable on hearing this. As Mr Letsie said about accurate information, there was no clear information and a questionnaire had to be created to guide Members.

Various sector stakeholders had been engaged but SAFETSA’s recommendation to be included in discussion and the MTT had to be taken up.

The Chairperson said that there had to be a plea for universities to allow SRC to be part of task teams to prepare for the return of students. He read about UNIVEN deducting data costs from allowances. If it was true that was a big problem.

He said he heard Ms Bozzoli. This was the third interaction on the same matter and there were two engagements with the Minister and DHET. In both those engagements, the Committee requested the specifics per institution and the call had been made in the past as well. It was expected that the presentation would give the Committee a sense of what was happening in each university so it could understand where the disparities were. The status of institutions individually was required to make this analysis. USAf also did not provide adequate information.

It would be fair that there was a follow up where the Committee received this information. The request was not understood. The Minister had said he would try and get the information in the second engagement. The information had to be given to the Committee.

On the procurement of laptops, he asked if there was a NSFAS representative in the meeting to discuss the matter directly. There was no one from NSFAS. He expressed his dissatisfaction on the lack of progress on the matter as it was key for multimodal remote learning. He pleaded with NSFAS to accelerate procurement of the laptops while complying with supply chain management requirements. Students were frustrated and it was not an issue of money but delayed processes. NSFAS had to factor in BBBEE when procuring laptops.

Disparities were mentioned but a true grasp could only be had once information per institution was received. USAf and DHET were disappointing as they did not meet this expectation which was communicated.

Director General response
Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde, DHET Director General, said he appreciated the Members’ comments. DHET together with USAf was not looking to critique each institution’s areas that required attention. It took the previous briefings into consideration and categorised institutions according to their needs. It was then working with each institution so that all structures required to save the academic year were in place.

The question of addressing inequality through making resources available was addressed as DHET was working with institutions and National Treasury on reprioritizing funds to confront the challenges of Covid-19. There were a few gaps. The advancement of all these structures and processes as well as Higher Health services was working to improve the situation. How far the institutions had gone in the view of the students was a testimony of DHET’s work. The few institutions that had challenges were being engaged.

The SRCs returning to campus was raised with institutions and the response was enormous. Even in the two cases where there had not been a return, institution management was working on it.

DHET was not intending to erase those challenges it was working on in some institutions. On the Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) matter, there were governing challenges as the Vice Chancellor had been suspended and DHET was responding to that matter. The concerns raised by the Committee were noted. He hoped the Committee could carry out oversight by visiting institutions.

The Chairperson said the presenters had to provide detailed written responses.

Deputy Minister response
Deputy Minister Manamela said that the work of the Ministerial Task Team was not complete, and it would depend on the Minister’s directive when it would end and what it would do. He said that there was a SAFETSA representative on the Task Team.

He agreed about the SAUS recommendation that oversight visits be conducted with stakeholder. When he visited the University of Limpopo and Capricorn TVET college, the students, unions and other stakeholders were part of the team. He would advise the Minister that stakeholders be included in those engagements.

The Deputy Minister replied that DHET was engaging the Department of Communications on the spectrum as it was a national issue.

The report the Committee wanted was a fair request. DHET had the information, but it had to be provided to the Committee. A discussion on how to do this just had to be had with the DG and Minister.

It had to be emphasised that the intervention made by DHET was not a device based intervention but rather a multi-modal intervention that supported learning and teaching. This emphasis was important because with or without devices learning was still taking place. UJ was assisting to get far away students to campus beyond sending devices.

The Chairperson's points were taken and DHET shared the sentiment that it was quite worrying that there were delays. NSFAS was aware that it had to make that intervention and in future the Committee may want to get a report on this.

USAf response
Prof Bawa replied there was a misconception that the academic year would be completed through online emergency teaching. Universities were not ready to complete the academic year via online teaching. This was the reason all universities had agreed that every student would have face to face engagement as the pandemic trajectory changed. The academic year had to be reconstituted so each student completed the academic year. It was misconception that online learning was how the academic year would be completed.

All universities had received guidelines and a checklist for the return of students and they had their own checklists. In the 20 minutes allocated to USAf, it was asked to respond to how universities were preparing for the return of students and this was what it did. The data requested by the Committee was enormous and DHET did receive feedback time to time from universities indicating the level of preparedness. This data was available. He appreciated Mr Mugabe’s input but said it was a one-sided story. For example, some universities requested to open later as they felt they needed the time to prepare while others opened. USAf would work through the SAUS presentation and engage Vice Chancellors on the concerns in the document. He emphasised that all universities were working towards preparation and suggested what the Director General said was the best option which was for the Committee to visit campuses and engage there.

SAUS response
Mr Mugabe replied the UNISA matter would be resolved once the SRC was involved going forward.

On its recommendations, there were 17 recommendations and he only mentioned five due to time constraints. The presentation had been sent to the Committee so that it could be shared with Prof Bozzoli and others to see that they were recommendations and not demands to Parliament. The SAUS duty was to assist Parliament with proper information. The presentation had to be shared with all Members.

Chairperson’s closing remarks
The Chairperson said he also understood the SAUS presentation as recommendations and appeals for help as students did not have the means. The pandemic did not allow the Committee to visit universities. If the information was available, it had to be provided to the Committee. If more time was required, it had to be requested. The only way to view disparities in the system was information per institution. The Committee was still making this request for detailed information. The fact that there was a lot of data did not mean it could not be distilled. There had to be a follow up engagement but he was thankful for the engagement.

The Committee had engaged on the subject and understood the challenges. The devices were a critical component of multi-modal learning and teaching but was not a panacea for all the problems concerning online learning. The Committee was not moving from a position of ignorance which was implicitly implied.

He gave thanks and comments had been noted and there would be a follow up to get responses to questions. There would be a follow up engagement on the matter. He thanked the student representatives for their work.

The Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) had been noted and it was being investigated. The matter would be returned to. The Committee would have a briefing soon on the inquiry framework.

He thanked attendees and adjourned the meeting.
 

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