The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost every facet of our society, not least the way universities operate. Responses had to be fast, adaptive and innovative. Professor Angina Parekh, a clinical psychologist and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), together with Prof Saurabh Sinha, an electronic engineer and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, UJ penned an opinion piece on how the University responded.
How UJ steered the academic year through lockdown and online education - Prof Saurabh Sinha and Angina Parekh (Daily Maverick 14 October 2020)
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost every facet of our society, not least the way universities operate. Responses had to be fast, adaptive and innovative. This is how the University of Johannes- burg responded. In times of normalcy, at this time as the year winds down, most students across universities would have been sitting for their final
Prof Saurabh Sinha and Prof Angina Parekh: UJ’s top executives explain how the institution steered the 2020 academic year
this regard, our teaching, research, internationalisation strategy and trajectory proved indispensable. We explored various options, including zero-rating of websites, as well as the means of data accessibility. Data accessibility, however, required connectedness, which varies unevenly and patchily throughout South Africa. Questions had to be asked: how do we zero-rate, who pays, and could bargaining be collective? The government regulations, through gazette provisions, were issued. At the time, the universities, through Universities South Africa and the Department of Higher Education and Training intensified cooperation and collaboration. However, practical implementation was another matter. In a context
university was able to ensure that none of its students who remained in residences contracted the virus.
was required, but more than ever before, social solidarity was needed. The question of whether to order the students out of campus residences or not became a conundrum. Some universities had sent their students packing. A decision needed to be taken. Fast. Whatever the decision, the safety and wellbeing of our students took priority over other considerations. Management decided to allow students to remain in residences, if they wished to do so. Yet, this was not a decision taken lightly, as we realised the responsibility for the students who opted to remain in residences lay with the university. In hindsight, the decision to keep our residences open was the correct one. With appropriate measures and controls, the
Beyond the safety issues, ensuring continuity of the
academic programme mattered. The university, in its quest for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), had already developed an approach to blended learning. Even so, many students accessed the online provision from campus or residences associated with the university system. Our goal was that the academic year must not be lost and that, in our approach, no student should be left behind. As South Africa's reality is one of inequality, it was vital that we recognise our vulnerabilities. More than ever before, we required innovation and collaboration. In
With less than eight weeks of the academic year completed, and the lockdowns coinciding with the period when the university was heading into the autumn recess, the odds seemed heavily stacked against the university, more so when UJ has many first- generation and international students, many of whom live in university-owned student residences or private accommodation. For many of them, returning home was simply not an option. Physical distancing
universities recognised that they were entering a period that could have been potentially catastrophic for the academic year. During the same month, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) had received international delegations from China, Germany, and other parts of the world. At the time, as is normal for universities, some staff members and students were overseas. There were several uncertainties, and the threats loomed large.
examinations. However, due to the national lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the picture is different. Extended academic programmes, with variances across universities, are the reality. It was over seven months ago, on Sunday, 15 March 2020, when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the national state of disaster. Given what we had observed in Asia, Europe, and other parts of the world,
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