Lessons learnt in respect of multimodal teaching and learning; 2021 registration for universities & TVET colleges; Progress made with NSFAS appeals; with Deputy Minister

Higher Education, Science and Technology

26 May 2021
Chairperson: Mr P Mapulane (ANC) and Mr E Nchabeleng (ANC, Limpopo)
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Meeting Summary

The Committees responsible for overseeing higher education in the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces convened jointly in a virtual meeting to be briefed by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) on the lessons learnt on multimodal teaching and learning mechanisms, and by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) on the registrations for 2021 and the progress on the appeals for the 2021 academic year.

The Department said it is important that universities “prioritise” students who cannot work remotely because of challenges with connectivity. The higher education sector is recovering from protests earlier this year, over issues of access to education during Covid-19, student debt and the 2021 academic year. 

The Department had assisted all 26 SA public universities with learning, teaching and assessment plans. In addition, the department had, through institutions like the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), provided learning devices such as laptops when higher learning institutions were forced to close in the Covid-19 lockdown.

Universities had also implemented catch-up programmes to assist students. Measures to assist students included the zero-rating of academic websites, data provision and discounted data bundles for those on NSFAS, and the Funza Lushaka Bursary for those studying teaching degrees. The Department said that by February, 74% of students who needed laptops had been supported to receive one, including 66% of students on NSFAS.

The Committee's concerns were focused mainly on the connectivity challenges experienced by students, especially those in rural universities and colleges, where community services were generally poor. The unavailability of  a reliable electricity supply negatively impact on these students, and it was suggested that local and provincial authorities should be approached to address this challenge. Members also questioned the higher education sector’s readiness to adapt to digital multimodal learning and teaching, considering the high failure rate that had been recorded at some institutions, especially technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges.

The laptop provision and data allowance initiative was also a matter of concern for Members, because many students had still not received their support packages from the Department or NSFAS. The Department’s support and level of assistance to institutions was questioned. The delays in the 2021 registrations were concerning to the Committee, because most of the reasons were system failures and connectivity challenges. This raised questions about the standard and quality of the information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure at higher education institutions to support students.  

Meeting report

Chairperson Mapulane welcomed everyone present and said that presentations would made by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) on the lessons learned from the lockdown period, the appeals and progress of the funding appeals, as well as a way forward for the 2021 academic year, because life had changed due to COVID. The lessons learnt should assist in informing and developing a way forward.

Deputy Minister's overview

Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister, DHET,  said that the pandemic had forced the Department to readjust the methods of learning and teaching, and that it had lived up to some of the objectives that were anticipated by the Department when the COVID lockdown was announced in March 2020.

The Department had appointed a ministerial task team, which included all the stakeholders within the post-school education sector, such as universities, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges and community education and training (CET) colleges. The team was guided by the objectives of saving the 2020 academic year, students and staff, and to ensure that no student was left behind through extensive interventions and consultations. One of the pillars of the intervention was the introduction of multimodal teaching and learning in institutions which was focused on various factors, not just online learning. Learning materials were sent to students who needed them, and some TVET colleges used social media platforms such as WhatsApp to learn, and TV programmes. The interventions had worked, and through the joint meeting the Department hoped that thinking would be enriched on how to integrate some of the lessons learnt through COVID.

The Deputy Minister said the inequalities amongst institutions and students had to be dealt with, as well as the challenges that existed broadly in society. The under-resourced TVET colleges and the training sector were also a challenge which had to be addressed to empower students to actively participate in the multimodal platform, especially those students who had not been able to return to their campuses. Some of the interventions should be modern sources to fund the post-schooling and training sector, so that the level of tertiary education in South Africa was at the same level as international institutions.

He said that COVID had worsened the NSFAS challenges that were pre-existing, and the new NSFAS board and management were working to restructure the scheme so that it was responsive, met the needs of institutions and students, and that the concerns that had been raised in the past were addressed.

DHET on lessons learnt in respect of multimodal teaching and learning

Dr Thandi Lewin, acting Chief Director: Teaching, Learning & Research, DHET, said that the Department was working with 26 universities to develop the multimodal mechanism where the various universities drafted different plans and submitted them. The COVID-19 Responsiveness Grant (CRG) was used to identify funds to support the teaching and learning plans. The plans included:

-The development and delivery of online teaching and learning materials;

-The development of print-based teaching and learning materials, and delivering them to students;

-The development and delivery of alternative assessment strategies; and

-The training of staff and students in the use of the teaching and learning strategies

She said that the 2020 academic year had been completed in March 2021 by most universities and that an adjusted risk approach for the return of students to campuses was done according to the risk levels of the National Disaster. The Department worked closely with major network operators to provide data bundles for students, and a special rate was negotiated for data bundles for NSFAS and Funza Lushaka-funded students in 2020. The average monthly data provision to undergraduates was 88%, and 87% for NSFAS students, and 74% of students who required laptops had been supported to obtain them. The Department had developed a monitoring tool, guided by the protocols and guidelines developed by Higher Health, to monitor the phased return of students to campuses.

Mr Sam Zungu, Deputy Director-General (DDG): TVET College branch, DHET, gave a background on the design academic challenges for TVET colleges, in particular the National Certificate Vocational (NCV) and Report 191. With the NCV, it became difficult to implement multimodal teaching and learning platforms because of how the NCV was designed. It consisted of 30% theory, which was easily integrated, but 70% had to be practical. The 70% was difficult to integrate unless there was an advanced platform. The programmes were designed for employed people who would come to institutions for theory, and the practical component was done at their places of employment.

He said that multimodal learning in TVET colleges was an urgent response to COVID-19 that required careful and realistic consideration of what was possible for implementation. Multimodal learning was in place to accommodate physical distancing, and there were key conditions that had underpinned the delivery of multimodal learning for TVET students, which included the absence of devices and internet connectivity for lecturers and students and the protracted period to implement physical distancing. Some initiatives to support multimodal learning included DSTV broadcasts, radio broadcasts, social media and learner management systems. 20% of public TVET colleges had engaged in multimodal learning at the beginning of COVID, and currently 80% had integrated multimodal learning and teaching. He highlighted that the enablers for effective use of multimodal learning included:

-The investment in technological resources that support learning;

-Lecturer development in using remote learning platforms;

-Institutional management and leadership in formulating workable timetables and learning resource allocations;

-Partnerships with key stakeholders; and

-Ensuring effective regional support structures

Dr Lewin said there were lessons learnt on student engagements in teaching and learning where there were high levels of participation reported. The percentage of students who did not engage was 2%, but this had decreased because students were prompted to return to campuses, and catch-up programmes were made available.

On the lessons learnt from the use of an access to learning materials, many universities were able to adapt and engage with the new technological way of learning and teaching. She also outlined the recommendations from the information collected from the survey.

On the student success rates, 16 universities reported the same or higher first semester success rates in 2020 compared to 2019, and only eight universities reported lower success rates in 2020.

On the plans for monitoring and analysis, there was continuous monthly monitoring and that universities had been asked to submit their 2021 learning, teaching and assessment plans to the Department, and the plans had been received and were currently being analysed. There was a lot of work being done and ongoing discussions on the way forward, together with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

On the lessons learnt for TVET colleges, Mr Zungu said that blended learning was, in the short-term, the realistic option because of the lack of devices and connectivity. Methods such as alternating timetables supported by social media and the learning management system (LMS) were more accessible and manageable. Students who had connectivity issues were able to use Wi-Fi hotspots and learning centres to download learning materials. The provision of learning devices to students meant that lecturers were not prioritised, which proved to be ineffective and problematic because there was no continuous assistance and guidance available for students.

Some of the other lessons learnt included the development of digital curriculum content to support online and remote learning, the conducting of student assessments being done on-site and not online, and for the monitoring of remote teaching and learning activities to be more effective and implementable.

He outlined the total enrolment and challenges per province in the TVET colleges:

  • Eastern Cape: there was a non-submission of enrolment at the Port Elizabeth TVET college because of system issues;
  • Free State and Gauteng: there was a non-submission of enrolment at the South West Gauteng TVET college because of system issues;
  • KwaZulu-Natal: there were key registration challenges because of slow connectivity issues and the late release of results;
  • Limpopo: the key registration challenges were that students still relied on campus facilities because of data and gadgets;
  • Mpumalanga and North West: there were non-submissions of enrolments at the Taletso and Vuselela TVET colleges because of data mapping issues;
  • Northern Cape and Western Cape: there was a non-submission of enrolment at the False Bay TVET college because of implementation challenges of the new system, and unprocessed registration data.

Dr Lewin said that all universities had submitted plans to commence the 2021 academic year, indicating registration schedules. Registration had been extended for students who were unable to register, especially NSFAS-qualifying first time entering (FTEN) students. She highlighted some of the issues around the Department's engagements with the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and the disruptions that were caused at universities.

On the historic debt of NSFAS students, R1.7 billion had been contributed by the government to NSFAS following a due diligence exercise that was undertaken in 2018 towards historic debt owed to universities. The project was a work in progress, subject to an audit process required by NSFAS. She also highlighted the information on the growing student debt in the university system.

Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde, Director-General (DG): DHET, said that the role of quality assurance bodies in respect to funding the whole university and TVET system, and the programmes that would be delivered by institutions, had been engaged with by the Department together with quality assurance bodies so that programme delivery and assessments were functional from the higher education institutions. It had been a collective effort with universities to ensure that the assessments and programme deliverables were of the expected quality and a satisfactory standard.

On the manner in which the work of institutions was evaluated and monitored, he said that a template had been developed that informed the plans for monitoring and evaluation at an institutional level for programme offerings, according to the liking and determination of the CHE and the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) so that there were no problems at the end of the academic year when results were announced. Work was being done by the CHE and the DHET to look at the necessity of reviewing some policies that required changes to adapt to, and accommodate, the new learning environment. There was a need for the reconceptualisation of teaching and learning so that it was adaptable and portable, to reinforce programme offerings in research at universities and colleges. The role of the quality councils was hardly recognised in the public eye, but the work that had been done was successful. The Portfolio Committee should consider engaging with the quality councils on their role in the changing environment and the support that was provided to institutions.    

National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)

Mr Ernest Khoza, Chairperson of the NSFAS Board, said that the Deputy Minister’s opening remarks had covered most aspects, and thanked the Committee for the opportunity to present.

He said the presentation would try to address the concerns of the Committee, and that some of the challenges at NSFAS were policy-related, and there were funding problems, systems challenges and matters of development. He assured the Committee that the challenges would be addressed, but this would not be overnight. The board had programmes in place. He also appreciated the oversight visit from the Portfolio Committee, during which fruitful engagements took place.

Mr Andile Nongogo, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), NSFAS, introduced the team from the entity.

Ms Nthuseng Mphahlele, Chief Operations Officer (COO), NSFAS, said that NSFAS had been allocated R35.2 billion for 2021, which excluded the R6.4 billion additional funding from the DHET. The TVET sector was not anticipated to have a shortfall.

NSFAS had received 422 786 registration records. She said that a lot of work needed to be done by some institutions to ensure that registrations were received on time, such as the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Limpopo and the University of Venda.

Provisional funding had been made available to 456 754 TVET students for 2021, but registrations had been received for only 195 308 students. There were concerns over the high failure rate of continuing students, and the Department had engaged with universities to try and understand the root problems. She outlined the numbers and amounts involved in the TVET funding system. On the TVET disbursement interventions, 7 754 NSFAS students had been funded manually until corrections on the system were made, and the challenges resulting in the slow registration process had been discussed with key stakeholders. To assist, teams were sent by NSFAS to various institutions to speed up the registration process, and payments were made weekly to catch up on the late registration submissions. The teams had also assisted with outstanding registration information.

On the 2021 appeals, she said that that 17 590 appeals had been received. Of these, 39% were later approved, while 45% remained rejected. On the provision of laptops, 170 000 laptops were on order, and some of the challenges included the impact of COVID on stock, approval from Treasury, revised delivery dates and stock that was received in batches. She said there had been engagements with stakeholders on the challenges experienced with the provision of laptops so that the delivery process was effective and efficient.  

Discussion

Chairperson Nchabeleng said the provision of funding at the tertiary level was the beginning of uplifting South Africans from poverty, which was a noble cause. He noted that there was an accommodation issue in emerging universities, especially in Mpumalanga, where students had to find accommodation in neighbouring communities which sometimes did not have electricity, and asked what the Department’s engagements with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) had been on a provincial and national level to ensure that the communities had services for students to utilise. He asked about the reviews of the analysis on the zero-rated sites and how many students per province were able to access these sites to ensure continuous learning and teaching. He also questioned if there was a correlation between the zero-rated sites and performance.

Ms C King (DA) raised concern on the multimodal teaching and learning being a challenge in some communities where students were unable to complete assessments and exams. Emails from University of South Africa (UNISA) students had been received listing the challenges experienced, which had resulted in incomplete assessments and failure in certain subjects. She asked how many university students had been able to complete their exams, how many could not complete them, and the reasons for the exams not being completed, because some students would be financially excluded based on the N+2 rule by NSFAS. She also asked how many universities were able to convert the curriculum to an online platform, because some universities were struggling and relied on students coming to the premises for contact learning.

To NSFAS, she acknowledged that institutions had been given until May to submit appeals, but 29 140 students on NSFAS had either received payments so late they could not register, or had not received payments at all. On the appeal process taking 30 days to be approved, she questioned how long the appeal process actually took, because students were being disadvantaged. At the Durban University of Technology (DUT), online learning had excluded many first time students, and most faculties did not have the exact numbers for the faculty to give access to all first year students. She asked how many first year students, who could not apply online, had been rejected. On the laptop initiative, she raised concerns on the wrongly instituted initiative at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS), where it had been linked to the book allowances and students were forced to choose between textbooks and a laptop. She asked how the allowances would be distributed in future and for clarity on when the distribution would start. How much would be distributed for each institution, because there might be first year students who would require funding?

Mr W Letsie (ANC) said that the infrastructure at some TVET colleges was in a bad state, and the infrastructure grant was often returned to the Treasury. He asked whether the grant could have been used to upgrade some of the college classrooms, and suggested that a programme be set up to assist TVET colleges in this regard instead of the money being returned. He also asked whether some of the money allocated to universities could not be returned to Treasury, and could be used to pay off some of the student debts.

He said that the DHET's presentation had focused mainly on universities and TVETs, and not on CETs and the skills development branch of the Department. He asked why these were not included, especially on the placement of students in work-related learning, trade test learnerships and artisan development. Information should have been presented on the work that was being done, and the courses provided for skills development during COVID. He said the third wave of COVID had arrived, and that multimodal learning needed to be strengthened and institutions had to be ready to adapt financially to ensure that the 2021 academic year ended in December, and not in the first quarter of 2022. He asked about the work that was being done to ensure that this was a reality.

He commented that there had been cuts to the infrastructure efficiency grant to universities and TVET colleges, and asked how this would affect the information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure at these institutions. From 2014, universities had been calling for a national digital library, and he asked about the work that had been done in this regard and if there had been progress.

He asked about the dropout rate of students for the 2020 academic year and whether the Department had assessed this rate compared to the previous academic years. On the 2021 registrations, he noted that TVET enrolments had affected registrations because of the delay in releasing results, and he asked what had caused the delays, when the results would be released -- and if they had been, when they were released. How many students had been impacted by the delays across the sector, the eligibility for NSFAS funding, and what mechanisms had been put in place to address the delays of funded students?

On the NSFAS historic student debts, he asked whether the DHET was confident that all students were aware of the relief grant from the Department, the process of applying for it by students, and how it was processed. He also asked about the percentage of the R14 billion that was owed by NSFAS-funded students under the old regime. H referred to the high failure rate of TVET students, and asked how confident NSFAS was about the record, given the situation that had happened at the Capricorn TVET college in Limpopo, where students had received results for one subject. How sure was NSFAS that the results were a true reflection of what was happening, and had due diligence been done before students were rejected?

The speedy resolution of challenges within the NSFAS system must be ensured, because it affected students negatively. When the Portfolio Committee had conducted oversight at NSFAS, the good work of the new board and administration efficiency had been noticed. There were hopes that there would be a turnaround in the institution when issues were resolved speedily.

He noted that the NSFAS presentation had stated that the University of Limpopo had delayed the process of accrediting accommodation from private entities, and he asked how this was affecting students who were supposed to pay for residence fees. For institutions like the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) that had not submitted registration data, he asked how this affected the institutions' ability to run effectively, because if there was no registration data then allowances would not be given to students.   

Mr S Tambo (EFF) said the lack of ICT in TVET colleges had an effect on how the institutions were run and the funding assistance from NSFAS. The Committee should assist the TVET colleges to ensure that the budget was utilised and conduct a high level of oversight to ensure that ICT was in place. There should be a joint venture with the Department of Communication, because ICT development and infrastructure development could not be left to the institutions alone, because it would be ineffective. Many South African were drawn to university education not because of desire, but for status, which was not good. The lack of ICT in the TVET college resulted in low numbers of people attending and enrolling in the sector.

He asked for the Department’s view on student debt preventing transformation in the higher education sector, and raised concerns about those who had not acquired their qualifications because of this debt. Did student debt contribute to the slow transformation of gender and race, those who pursued post-graduate studies in Honours and Masters degrees, and those who became tutors or professors? A meaningful conversation needed to be held on the level of ICT infrastructure, especially during COVID.    

Ms D Christians (DA, Northern Cape) acknowledged that 2020 was a hard year for many educational institutions in the country. Online learning was the new way of education globally, and the Department should have shared in detail how this would be ensured, especially with COVID and the inequalities that existed in South Africa. She asked how the Department would address connectivity issues and ICT in the country. The laptop distribution initiative had been ongoing for months, and there were still ICT issues, especially in the rural provinces where connectivity was an issue. The budget plans for enabling connectivity at the institutions in rural provinces should have been presented by the Department to ensure that no student was left behind.

On the pass rates and certifications at TVET colleges, she said that students at the colleges were required to pass a certain number of subjects before they could be certified, and she had noted the failure rate at the TVET colleges that had been highlighted in the NSFAS presentation. She asked the Department about the actual pass rates during COVID, because TVET college students needed to be on the college premises for practicals, and how the Department assisted the students to receive their certification. She asked how student attendance and engagement impacted on them, and what the dropout rates in TVET colleges and universities was. To NSFAS, she said that the ICT disbursement system tender had been advertised by NSFAS and later withdrawn, and asked whether the tender was being looked into again, if the ICT system was being upgraded, or if the same wallet system would be used.

Ms D Sibiya (ANC) raised concerns on the 7 868 appeals that had been rejected, and asked for the reasons for the appeals being withdrawn. She noted the TVET colleges with connectivity issues and registration challenges where registration had to be postponed, and asked for the specific month in which registrations had been postponed in 2021.

Chairperson Nchabeleng asked for a provincial breakdown from the Department on the registrations and challenges faced by each province for the benefit of the Select Committee, and on the Department making 11% progress with supplementary appeals. He asked what these appeals were, and why there was progress of 11%.   

Ms S Lehihi (EFF, North West) commented that the presentation had highlighted that 66% of the 70% of university students on NSFAS who requested assistance to engage in multimedia learning platforms had been assisted. She asked whether the remaining 4% had not been assisted, and said that a device without connectivity or data allowance for learning was the same as having no device, especially when students across the country were complaining that data allowances had not been received. She asked whether the Department performed any oversight on the implementation of multimodal learning.

Chairperson Mapulane said that R1.7 billion had been made available in 2018 to cover the debt of NSFAS-funded students, and that the presentation had stated that this amount still had to be audited so that the amount spent could be determined. He asked whether there was an estimation of the figure that had been spent, because one of the challenges faced by students during registration was the historical debt which prevented them from registering. Qualifying students should be given funds to cover the debt, and be allowed to register. COVID had revealed the inequalities that existed because of how the university system was set up historically, and certain race groups were prioritised. Historically advantaged institutions put measures in place and utilised resources to ensure students continued with their studies by allocating gadgets, data allowances and infrastructure for multimodal learning and teaching. Historically advantaged institutions were the first to complete the academic years, followed by other institutions. The lessons learnt should include the interventions required to close the gap of inequality, which had not been highlighted by the Department.

The Chairperson asked for comments on the matter and said that serious interventions were required within the sector. On the infrastructure in the TVET colleges, he asked about the leadership in the TVET branch and what was needed to resolve the matter because before COVID, 20% of TVET colleges were offering online learning, but it increased to 80% -- which was good -- but the challenges still remained . What should the interventions be, especially since the money allocated for infrastructure had been reprioritised for NSFAS backlogs. However, even past allocation expenditures were not good, because almost 60% of the allocated money had been spent.

Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) said that a true reflection on the analysis of the learning and teaching experiences during COVID should be done to assess the impact on both the lecturer and the student. The success rates of the 2020 academic year also needed to be reflected, because some institutions had indicated that participation rates had increased where a student was actively involved in the online platforms and submitted assessments and assignments. The Department should conduct a study on the future of education in South Africa post COVID. She also recommended an analysis on the ICT infrastructure in institutions post COVID, the capacity and dynamics of accommodation post COVID, as well as how municipalities could contribute to reducing the strain on the higher education sector by providing connectivity hotspots, learning centres and improving community libraries. There might be a need for engagement by this Committee with the various departments, the Committee on Sport, Arts and Culture and the Committee on Communication on these matters. She asked about the progress in expanding programmes, such as the Imbali project in KwaZulu-Natal, across the country instead of creating new programmes. She said that work needed to be done proactively going into the future, especially with the third wave, and an analysis also had to be done on the expenditure and infrastructure in institutions post COVID, what the focus of the institutions was, and what had changed.   

DHET's response

Ms Nolwazi Gasa, Deputy Director General: Planning, Policy and Strategy, DHET, said that the issues of gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) were critical, and that the Department was mindful of the challenges and critical points of concern. It was working with Higher Health to ensure that a three-pronged approach was followed on prevention, support and psychosocial support. It was working with stakeholders to attend to the issues of infrastructure in universities, CET colleges, TVET colleges and the skills development branch of the Department. The DHET would love the opportunity to table the resolutions on the infrastructure challenges.

Mr Qonde appreciated the questions and recommendations made by the Members of the joint Committee, and said that the recommendations would be implemented and taken as a way forward by the Department.

Dr Lewin thanked Members for the critical suggestions that had been provided, and said that they needed to be carefully analysed by the Department.

On the issue of students in rurally located universities, specifically in Mpumalanga, she said universities worked on their own on matters concerning accommodation, connectivity and other services such as electricity, and a strong relationship had been established with provincial and national government on the development plans of the universities, because there needed to be a requisite development of the university facilities.

It was important for universities to prioritise the return of students to campuses so that they had access to connectivity and a conducive learning environment. There had been improvements to the ICT infrastructure across universities in the country and engagements had been held with universities on these network infrastructure improvements and funding allocations. It was unfortunate that the improvement process would be postponed, but universities would continue with the process to address critical issues of connectivity and ICT.

On the need to understand the issues of accommodation, she said that the system should be monitored.

She agreed that learning platforms should be zero-rated to support students because there were many students who utilised smartphones if they had no laptops, in order to access online learning materials. This method of accessing learning material was not advisable, but it helped students to access the online platforms.

There was ongoing work on the digital libraries licence project, and collaboration with the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI). This was a critical issue, because resources needed to be pooled so that institutions reduced the costs spent on libraries and digital access for students.

On the financial and certification issues, the Department had had engagements with institutions where certification issues were experienced, and employers should not reject students because they did not have actual certificates. There had been discussions with SAUS and Universities South Africa (USAf) on the matter, and a streamlined approach was being developed for all institutions to ensure that students with debt could still access the information that they need for employment and for furthering their studies.

She said that NSFAS would provide details on the student debt issues, and that universities were usually aware which students qualified and could register after an acknowledgement of debt had been signed.

On the R14 billion allocation for NSFAS students, she said the government had had historic debt from NSFAS students for years, and the debt of qualifying students should be fairly low. NSFAS had been working with universities on the matter, and an analysis could be provided at a later stage on the historic debt and the percentage of students with the debt.

She said that resources had been adjusted to adapt to the new normal circumstances of students not being in residences, and the Department had been privileged to work with Higher Health, which had been able to assist with the work of the DHET in engaging with higher education institutions to provide scientific advice, support and guidelines. At the end of March, directions had been given on how institutions should manage the 2021 academic year, and assistance was provided to ensure that the year progressed, and the management of the institutions to adapt to COVID protocols had been monitored. Institutions were now able to implement blended learning and had mechanisms in place for students to return to campuses and have contact learning.

Regarding student debt and its effect on the transformation of the higher education sector, she said that student debt was a serious issue and the Department was looking at ways to provide comprehensive financial support to students, and to address the low level of post-graduate students. The National Research Foundation (NRF) had adjusted its guidelines and was doing more to ensure post-graduate funding for previous NSFAS beneficiaries. There were programmes and progress on the demographics of the academic staff in institutions, and more detailed presentations could be presented to the committee on the analysis of the issue. There were big changes happening within the institutions and the Department to address the issues.

On the issues of pass rates and academic integrity, she said that the Department was working closely with the CHE on the matter, and data had been received to perform an in-depth analysis on the matter because institutions, both private and public, were being questioned on the issues.

On the students who did not have laptops, she said that they used smartphones to access online learning material, which was not advisable. Many universities were making laptops available to students, as well as data allowances, with the help of grants from the Department. The Department had started monitoring universities for the 2021 academic year, and there were hopes that the monitoring reports would be finalised so that the situation in institutions could be better understood. The policy regarding how students utilised their learning material allowances was being discussed with universities, because they were the mediating body between the institutions and the students on how learning material allowances were used. Students needed access to devices, and the question then became how universities could assist students to access both the devices and the learning materials such as textbooks, because a lot of students used the library materials and second hand books.

More work had to be done on how universities could reduce the cost of textbooks by making online learning platforms widely available, and a written update on the digital library licence would be forwarded to the Committee. The success rates of students, and whether they were a true reflection, would be followed up by the Department because data submissions still had to be received from the institutions.    

Mr Zungu said that most of the connectivity issues had been covered by Dr Lewin. Colleges were the most affected by the issue, because they were under-funded. A study had not been conducted on the number of students that were able to access the zero-rated online platforms, and whether there was a correlation with results, and it was a consideration because it would help the sector identify the lessons learnt. Engagements would be carried out to determine the beneficiaries and the correlation.

He said that TVET colleges were clustered according to their regions, but the requested data per province would be provided to the Committee.

On the connectivity issues, he said that TVET colleges implemented a rotation system for students to enter the campuses to access the internet and download learning materials. Referring to the ICT infrastructure, and the under-utilisation of the grant that was allocated, he said many TVET colleges experienced problems because of the lack of capacity to use the grant, and most of the money had to be returned to Treasury. He said that the recommendation made on the reprioritisation of the grant was an important recommendation in order to address the infrastructure challenges. Ms Gasa was in a better position to outline the plans of the Department in rolling out the ICT infrastructure plans.

The statistics on the placement of students in the workplace kept on changing, and the establishment of specialisation centres by the Department had assisted the TVET colleges with the placements. The centres also helped the TVET staff in gaining exposure to companies where students were placed. There were initiatives by the sector education and training authorities (SETAs), which had also assisted the TVET colleges. The remarks made by the Deputy Minister had been noted on how students were recruited, and that the students should already be placed in companies before they were placed in the TVET colleges, which would reduce the placement issue.

Regarding preparations for the third wave, he said that there were engagements with the college principals and college management to ensure that the TVET colleges were ready. The scope of the work placement had to be expanded to small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs), and not to big cooperates and enterprises.

The statistics on the proper grades could be provided to the Committee.

He said that all students had to be tracked so that the reasons for dropping out could be better understood and students could be assisted. Some students who dropped out had already received funding from NSFAS, which had financial implications.

One of the contributing factors to the late release of results was that the examinations and assessments happened at institutions, and the marks were then uploaded and assessed by the Department and quality assurance bodies. In between this process, there were sometimes queries on the marks that had been issued to students, and work was done to ensure the accuracy of the work that had been done in issuing results.

He said that the Department had an integrated approach to infrastructure development, and it did not include only physical buildings, but also ICT infrastructure.

He said that the applications postponed till 2021were only for the last quarter of 2020, which had been deferred to 2021 because of connectivity challenges. When data allowances were not being rolled out completely, this was a challenge because students who accessed content at home needed to have connectivity and that there was hope that a platform could be developed for students to have the data that they needed for the online platforms. This approach would work only when there was a blended learning system and not just online learning, because interaction from the student was required.

Ms Gasa said that they would be working with all of the DDGs and DG Qonde to ensure that infrastructure was coordinated together with key stakeholders to address the issues of fragmentation. Accountability and coordination had to be ensured in the future for the work that would be done.       

Mr Qonde said that outstanding issues would be followed up on. There were programmes that were being rolled out by the Department for both undergraduates and post-graduates to address the impact of student debt on transformation. All NSFAS qualifying students did not have debt, because there had been the intervention of releasing funds to pay off this debt. Access to funding at the undergraduate level had increased, and between 60-70% of students at university were black. The post-graduate and staffing would be strengthened to advance the training of black academics -- mainly black females -- and to increase the number of doctorates.

There were interventions to address the inequalities, even though they might not be enough, which included the participation of National Treasury in zero-based budgeting. This would assist the Department in looking at the utilisation of funds and to ensure that historically disadvantaged institutions received a better share of the resources from the State.

Chairperson Nchabeleng thanked everyone present, and said that the data and analysis on the clarity-seeking questions should be submitted to the Committee.

Mr Qonde said that follow-ups would be done by the Department and forwarded to the Committee.

Chairperson Mapulane said that the engagements had been productive, and Members had been robust when asking questions. Long-term planning issues did not require quick responses, so the Department would have time to consider the suggestions that were provided by Members. The questions to NSFAS could be responded to in writing, especially on the student debt and qualifying students.

Overall, everything was in good standing, despite the challenges that had been experienced in the previous year. All the institutions were able to conclude the 2020 academic year, and the lessons learnt had been drafted. The 2021 academic year had to be completed on time, otherwise there would be financial implications, as seen with the NSFAS qualifying students. Detailed information had to be provided for better planning, especially during this pandemic.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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