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COVID-19: Wits Boss Hits Back At Higher Education Deputy Minister Over e-Learning Controversy

Charles Molele

Wits University vice-chancellor and principal Adam Habib has hit out at Higher Education Deputy Minister Buti Manamela for criticising his decision to resume classes using online learning and teaching, describing his comments as ‘irresponsible’ for person holding a senior position in government.

This comes after Manamela took to Twitter on Sunday to lambast Wits management and other top universities for opting to implement remote online learning and teaching during the coronavirus lockdown despite deep social inequalities and fractures in South Africa.

The decision by Wits University, University of Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town to implement remote online learning and teaching this has drawn the ire of students and various student political formations such as the EFF Student Command (EFFSC) and the South Africa Students Congress (SASCO).

They believe that the decision by Wits University to offer e-learning during lockdown will negatively affect those who come from lower-income areas, the majority of whom do not have access to a computer, the internet and live in poor and overcrowded conditions.

In a series of hard-hitting tweets on Sunday evening, Manamela said Wits University’s decision to proceed with e-learning lectures while thousands of students from poor backgrounds did not have access to internet connectivity was ‘irresponsible’ and ‘inconsiderate’.

“For Wits University and others to insist on resuming academic programmes ONLINE tomorrow even when some students will be left behind, and after agreement with all stakeholders to work towards a later date when we are all ready, is irresponsible and inconsiderate,” said Manamela.

“Yes, universities have autonomy, but this does not legitimize turning them into fiefdoms that disregard national consensus so as to serve the interest of a few. If answers can’t be given on how students who can’t study online will be covered, then why continue?”

“The principles are clear. No institution should be left behind. No student should be left behind. Students who have no study gadgets or internet connectivity should not be treated as though they are the cause of #COVID-19. We will ensure that we take all students along.”

Habib hit back at Manamela shortly afterwards, describing his comments as ‘irresponsible’ and not backed by facts.  

“It does not accord with the facts and is based on political gossip and hearsay,” said Habib, who wrote a lengthy response to Manamela about remote online learning and the need to proceed with the 2020 academic year.

“Be measured Deputy Minister, and act in the interest of the nation and not just political factions. This factional behaviour is what has destroyed so many public institutions. There are other universities also beginning online teaching on 20 April as agreed at USAF. There is no violation of a national agreement – we agreed to enable multiple pathways of learning and to ensure that all students are given a fair opportunity to complete the year,” said Habib.

“The interpretation of social justice underlying your tweet translates into a retreat to the lowest common denominator. This populist interpretation is anti-developmental, will weaken our institutions and entrench global inequality.”

“Our vision of social justice, which we believe accords with our Constitution, requires us to be conscious of the inequality in our midst and to intervene to address its consequences.”

Habib went on to ‘school’ Manamela about how the university arrived at the critical decision to implement remote online learning and teaching at Wits University.

“We were aware that some students didn’t have devices, so we established a facility to loan 5000 laptops to disadvantaged students. Many of these laptops have been dispatched & others will be delivered before the end of the week,” said Habib.

“Lectures will be recorded on our Learning Management System and can be accessed at the student’s convenience. Academics are on standby to assist students as they come online. The next 2 weeks will be used to acclimatise to the online learning process. No tests or assignments will be due until 4 May.”

The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology is expected to meet on Tuesday to discuss the impact of the lockdown on the higher education sector.
 
The committee will also receive a briefing from the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande on plans of the department, universities and Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges to rescue the 2020 academic year.

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