PROFESSOR MAMOKGETHI PHAKENG
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus our rapidly changing world. It has been coming for some time. Back in July 2016 after I joined the University of Cape Town as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, I spoke at the launch of the university’s annual research report. I argued that in the coming decade we would face a world of uncertainty as well as rapid and profound change.
Four years later, here we are with COVID-19. And more challenges lie ahead, with economic problems, climate change, poverty and inequality, as well as the ethics of machine learning as we settle into the fourth industrial revolution, to name just a few. These challenges will test our solidarity and commitment but together we can overcome each one of them.
When I became Vice-Chancellor in 2018, I argued that for us as UCT to cope with this uncertain future, we would need three things: an unrelenting commitment to excellence, an exceptional focus on transformation, and the courage to do things differently to keep UCT sustainable.
I argued on that occasion that we must forever bury the notion that the global is somehow not African. The problems of Africa are the problems of the world and the problems of the world are the problems of Africa.
Gone are the days when people thought infectious diseases are an “African” problem. COVID-19 has wreaked havoc everywhere.
So we are in this together not just as UCT but as a nation and as the global community.
Higher education around the world is facing the same set of uncertainties that we are facing at UCT. And we continue to engage with higher education institutions here in South Africa, on the continent and elsewhere in the world. And leading institutions in the world that we collaborate with are facing the same issues.
At UCT, along with other South African institutions, we are aware that a return to normality – or a semblance of it – could take time. If at all. Of course, what we think is normal will probably never return completely. So while there is a lot of talk about recovery, my view is that perhaps what would be needed for us to do is not so much recovery but maybe adaptation.
This is a challenge and an opportunity we share with our students… This is an opportunity for all of us to rethink and reimagine how we learn and teach, how we do research and how we apply what we learn – recognising that our students will be working with us to build a new post-COVID world.
To complete the academic year at UCT we are thinking of all of our students, including those whose environment is not suitable for learning, those living in poverty and those living with different kinds of disabilities. We are working together to meet the challenge.
And it is not easy at all. It is thanks to the help of faculties and professional, administrative and support services staff, including many different departments, that we have been able to ease the situation for most of our students. Nearly 21 000 undergraduate and postgraduate students completed our Student Access Survey to determine the resources they have available for remote learning. We have used this information to see how we can provide help to students who may need it. We are learning a lot though this process of remote learning and teaching, and these lessons should help all of us in Term Three and into the future.
We are monitoring student participation on Vula [internal UCT online learning platform], to identify those who might need extra help and to work with faculties to assist those students.
We have bought laptops and arranged to deliver them on loan to needy students. We are looking at ways to assist students who do not have online access, by sending them printed materials and flash drives. Our aim is to ensure that as many students as possible can continue learning while they are off campus, using whatever materials we can make available to them. We have assembled several working groups and we are using the COVID-19 UCT emergency fund to support this project.
We are providing prepaid data to all students, and we have also established agreements with all four major cellphone operators – Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom – to provide access at no charge to UCT websites that are key for online learning.
This new way of teaching and learning is stressful for all of us, but especially for students, who may feel isolated from their lecturers and tutors and from the camaraderie of fellow students. They may not have home environments where they can study effectively.
Many students I speak to see UCT as an escape: a peaceful physical space where they can focus on their studies. It’s a space they don’t necessarily have at home. So we have also created a plan to assist vulnerable students once the campus can reopen, with blended learning, combining online learning with face to face learning and tutorials. We will only see the success of that when campus can reopen.
Colleagues in the Centre for Innovation in Learning Technology (CILT) in the Centre for Higher Education Development have made it possible to develop online teaching materials in a very short time. CILT is continuing its webinar series with tools to help teaching staff to measure student engagement and to assess their performance in each course.
Even before lockdown, students were interacting with lecturers and tutors online and accessing course materials. We have been building up a bank of recorded lectures since 2018. I hope we can learn to use online teaching as a way to free teaching staff to engage more meaningfully with students on a personal level, because their influence as role models remains as important as ever.
UCT researchers and postgraduate students remain as active as possible, working remotely. Our researchers have been actively engaged with the National Department of Health, with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases as well as the Presidency, to support the government in response to COVID-19. These efforts include developing vaccine candidates, epidemiology studies, clinical research and developing low-cost personal protective equipment.
Experts across the university have been advising the government at provincial and national level as well as volunteering. Their work includes reaching out to the townships and working in local hospitals and clinics.
Many of our staff members would like to know when they could come back to campus. We will not rush to bring colleagues back to campus unless the government directs us to do so, and unless we know that it is safe to do so. When we do return, it will probably be in phases and we will make sure that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that staff members are safe.
We now plan to teach remotely for the second and third terms. The academic year is likely to extend well into December and to continue into February 2021. UCT’s current planning includes the possibility of pushing the start of the next academic year to March 2021. This plan is subject to change, however, depending on the government’s response to COVID-19. Our primary focus is to ensure that every student can complete the academic year successfully.
In the meantime, the cost of the lockdown including financial aid and items such as data and laptops for students, are mounting. I have pledged 20% of my salary for the next three months to the UCT COVID-19 emergency fund. This is in addition to the 10% of my salary that I already contribute to a UCT scholarship fund to support women postgrad students.
In March, at the beginning of the lockdown, our Chancellor, Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, announced a donation of R5 million by the Motsepe Foundation. And many of colleagues have also pledged their salaries and made substantial donations to the UCT COVID or to some of our entities such as the Baxter Theatre and to the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHAWCO). I invite all members of the UCT community to pledge to the fund. Any amount is welcome, no matter how big or small.
Through our hard work, a new and stronger UCT is emerging out of this crisis. As a community we are demonstrating excellence, resilience and innovation.
(Mamokgethi Phakeng is Professor of Mathematics Education and Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.)