Will Higher Education Remain The Custodian Of Knowledge In A Post Covid-19 South Africa?

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We live in a time of unprecedented change, with transformations taking place in every sector, due, in part, to massive technological advances and, of course, to Covid-19.  Our universities are no exception.

‘Covid-19 had a massive impact on society as a whole, and on how we approach teaching and learning in our schools and higher education institutions,’ says Prof. Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

When Covid-19 hit our shores in March 2020, Petersen and his team immediately began the migration to remote teaching and learning, which involved the training of staff, getting the material online, briefing students, procuring laptops, and zero rating the learning portals.

Now, almost 18 months later, it has become clear that universities, along with rest of society, may never return to a pre-Covid world. ‘We’re looking at things like virtual reality classrooms, a flexible human resources model, governance & quality assurance in relation to digital teaching and learning, and a new model for internationalisation of higher education institution.’

We foresee that the changes taking place in universities need to be guided by some basic principles:

Technology must be developed with human wellbeing in mind
Although the world has become more digitalised, our need for social and physical interactions remains. The isolation of Covid-19 has taught us that we cannot function as a digital society alone. Higher education institutions will probably present a blended mode of learning in the future; a combination of online learning and face-to-face interactions, ensuring that students still get to experience campus life.  

We have established a Centre for Digital Futures, co-directed by a scholar in humanities and a scholar in computer sciences. Technology needs to be developed that considers its impact on humans and our physical and emotional wellbeing.  This centre will combine digital tools with the tools of the humanities to either innovate better or make processes more efficient – for example, creating precision agriculture or individualised healthcare.’

How universities interact with society will change
For a long time, universities have been viewed as the main custodians of knowledge. Recently, we have had anti-scientific world leaders who have caused communities to become distrustful of universities and science.

Universities have to work on building trust again, and are grappling with their role in society today. You can’t respond to that question if you don’t engage with society. Other sectors of society and other parts of the globe hold a lot of knowledge which higher education institutions can learn from.

The University of the Free State has started engaging far more intentionally with various sectors of society, nationally and internationally. ‘In most academic departments or clusters thereof, we have introduced industrial or sector-specific advisory boards with members from the private sector, industry and government. They keep us informed about changes in their sectors, and as a result we’re developing programmes together. Some of these programmes serve as additional courses to make students more employable.

Of course, Covid-19 has also taught us that no country is an island. We all had to work together and learn from each other to fight Covid-19. I believe this trend will continue post-Covid and that the global North will no longer dictate to the rest of the world. As we continue to learn from each other, global classrooms may soon play an important role. For example, African scholars will be able to teach classes to students in other countries.’

Increase access to higher education, but ensure it’s the right people
‘Nationally, participation in higher education is currently less than 20% of the population (18 – 24 age bracket), and needs to increase to 30% by 2030, according to the National Development Plan. But first we need a major overhaul of the system!

The first problem is that the wrong people are currently attending universities:
So your success rate is low and leads to wastage. Not enough students attend other post-school institutions like TVET colleges. There seems to be a perception of inferiority associated with the vocational sector, which is leading to a shortage of these very important skills. A values-driven change needs to happen in those sectors, and vocational institutions need to be properly resourced with the relevant skills.

The second problem is the financing of students.
Before Covid-19, there was already pressure on the National Student Financial Aid System to cater for students who qualify for financial assistance. Now, even more students qualify due to the impact of Covid-19 on our economy – a scenario which is not sustainable.

The solution to the socio-economic problems students face does not lie with government alone. If Covid-19 taught us anything, it is that all sectors of society – government, corporate, NGO and institutions of higher learning – need to collaborate to find solutions to the massive inequalities still hampering the wellbeing of South African citizens.

If higher education is to continue to produce the intellectual capital of the country, we need everyone on board.

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