Felix Maringe, Professor of Higher Education and Head of the Wits School of Education

COVID 19 has turned the world upside down resulting in widespread shut downs of institutions, business entities and national borders in attempts to flatten the curve of rising infections. As the nation went into quarantine, so too did all the institutions of higher education in the country. I reflect on a number of consequences and impacts of a quarantined academy.

The first and most obvious is the reality of uncertainty that envelopes the higher education sector. Writing for the Universities World News on 29 March 2020, Marguerite Dennis has noted: ‘Disruptions and upheavals are not the usual companions of reason and logic’. Universities are most productive when all is quiet, stable and peaceful. In crisis mode, they tend to experience complete paralysis in times of uncertainty. While the academy has been put to sleep for 21 days, there is no absolute certainty that universities will reopen at the end of the lockdown. Even less clear is whether they will return to their usual ways of conducting business of teaching, learning and research. 

With the exception of UNISA and a few other private institutions which offer distance learning, the majority of our universities offer face to face tuition usually conducted in large class settings. It is very unlikely that the sector will have the confidence to deal with this form of educational delivery barely 21 days when it is hoped the virus would have eased off. 

In response, universities are preparing for the resumption of the academic programme through online learning. Several challenges present huge obstacles to this strategy.

First is the fact that both staff and students do not quite know how to conduct university business in the distance mode. There is a vast and complex scholarship of distance learning which traditional universities are not quite up to speed with (Guardia 2016). Mere posting of teaching and learning materials on platforms such as SAKAI without the underpinning Pedagogies is likely to negatively affect both quality and effectiveness of students learning. 

Secondly, the transition to online learning is often thought of as a cheaper option. There is a significant amount of human resource and technological support needed to sustain a meaningful online learning (Bates 2016). The initial costs of setting up effective online education are quite substantial and many universities will not have budgeted for this in the current academic year. The tendency will be to turn to cheaper online options which may negatively influence both quality and effectiveness.

Thirdly, two further challenges stand out; assessment and how to conduct practicals in an online mode. The academy has to learn very quickly and perhaps UNISA has to come to the party to share its wisdom with traditional universities regarding these seemingly insurmountable matters. 

Fourthly, is the question of access especially for students located in far flung places in remote rural communities. Arrangements may need to be made for such students to go to designated centers for meaningful access to the internet. This creates new challenges, not least of which are meeting the costs of transport and dealing with any emerging constraints in the post lockdown period. Issues of exacerbating inequalities for the already disadvantaged students have to be interrogated and mitigated lest the gains already achieved may be wiped out in an instant. 

Much has been learnt during these past few weeks in the now quarantined academy. What was blatantly clear, though, was how unprepared universities are when disaster occurs. Protocols for managing and mitigating crises, beyond the usual fire drills, need to be put in place. Who knows what will come after COVID 19? The most challenging and shoddy arrangements were those related to evacuating international students from campuses and university residences. That group of students who bring much needed revenue to the sector was the least catered for when it mattered the most.

Martin and Furiv (2020) have suggested that despite the possible short term duration of COVID 19, its impact in Higher Education is likely to quite significant and long lasting.  Depending on the scale and success of online teaching and learning, a huge opportunity exists for all universities to expand access to more students in the medium to long term. Traditional universities may need to reconsider new staffing requirements to support online teaching and learning. As students learn away from campuses, attracting a new cadre of research and teaching staff, rethinking new business models for our campuses, and embedding new values of lifelong learning in the academy will be central to sustaining a new trajectory in the ongoing transformation of the academy. This will mark a significant turning point in imagining and delivering Higher Education in the post COVID 19 era. In any case, Isaac Newton discovered calculus as he was learning from home following the shut down of Cambridge University during the bubonic plague of 1665. 



Dennis, M. (2020) How will Higher Education have changed after COVID 19? University World News, 29 March 2020  Issue No: 591

Guardia, M. (2016) New Generation Pedagogy, Ideas for online and blended Higher Education, Barcelona, UOC eLearn Centre. 

Martin, M. & Furiv U. (2020) COVID 19 shows the need to make learning more flexible, 29 March 2020  Issue No: 591