Covid-19 has upended higher education across the world. Deep concerns related to its infectiousness, virulence and the trajectory of spread all contribute to extraordinary uncertainties shaping crises in the economy and in all aspects of social life. The pandemic has severely impacted Education.
This pandemic has stretched the inequality fault-lines in the South African education system to breakpoint levels, leading very much to forms of social triage. Addressing these fault lines has to be at the centre of the post Covid-19 period with new strategic intent and political will. Twenty-six years after the democratic transition in 1994, we still have universities that are euphemistically referred to as historically disadvantaged institutions. To be real, they are trapped in such a condition.
Universities face short-term crises relating mainly to the continuity of their academic enterprise and to their finances. These are partly related to each other because of the large investments required for the shift to online emergency teaching/learning and in the preparation of the campuses for the safe return of students. Both are significantly capital intensive. On the other hand the short-term financial crisis has also to do with the diminishing of several income streams.
In South Africa there are also important longer-term sustainability issues relating to the possible cuts in government subsidy funding; the impact of the economic downturn on families as they navigate their options and the possible decline in demand. All of these have serious implications on how universities will manage the medium to longer term.
That the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic fosters the need for a reimagination of the university as a social institution cannot be denied. Alongside the pandemic, large numbers of people have taken to the streets in many societies to take up the issues of deep and unsustainable equalities, racial injustice and the erosion of democracy. In South Africa, deeply pertinent issues raised by the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements must be countenanced. All of this in the context of the new technology moment that universities are immersed in. Are universities ready to disrupt themselves in the way that they have contributed to the disruption of other industries?
This well-conceived article by Tawana Kupe and Gerald Ouma explores this challenge. It was presented at a special workshop to the Board of Universities South Africa and generated much debate and discussion. It raises questions that will be taken up by the Funding Strategy Group of USAf.
University of the Free State (UFS): Vice-Chancellor’s video message on the UFS plan of action