The University of Limpopo (UL) introduced online applications only in 2016, four years after internet speed on the main campus was given a boost from 30 to 150 megabits per second (Mbps). Acting Deputy Registrar: Academic Administration, Mr Mampuru Malahlela, proudly recalls that “when we introduced online applications, the university already had a functioning internet facility, and it continues to work perfectly to date.”
The current academic year (2019) saw the university achieving the highest number of online applications yet, as 41,395 (86,5%) of the 47,895 applications received, were done online.
The 6,500 students who still submitted paper-based applications are a combination of:
a) students from far-flung areas that have no access to internet services;
b) international students who are required to submit their foreign qualifications, proof of medical cover and study permits in original paper form as well as
c) masters and doctoral students who first need to submit a written proposal and secure a promoter before they can complete application forms.
“Considering that we perform the core administrative function of the university, namely admissions, registration, assessments and graduations, and that we do not encounter system problems, I give our internet a thumbs-up,” he says, beaming with pride.
Malahlela credits the ability of his Department under the Registrar’s Office to process students’ data efficiently to more reliable and stable internet connectivity — a direct outcome of the Universities South Africa (USAf) driven Rural Campuses Connection Project (RCCP). The RCCP came about when the then Higher Education South Africa (HESA), USAf’s predecessor, approached the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) for funding support as far back as 2008, with the aim to enhance broadband connectivity to priority rural campuses that had not been connected to the South African National Research Network (SANReN) backbone. Through improved ICT infrastructure and enhanced internet connectivity, HESA was seeking to enable the rurally-based campuses to improve teaching and learning as well as research. Managed by USAf, the RCCP is being funded by the DHET and implemented by the Tertiary Education and Research Network of SA (TENET).
The Acting Deputy Registrar: Academic Administration says a validation report that his department received from Institutional Information Management at the end of the 2019 registration season indicated that “this year there were less than 100 issues to manage, in comparison to the over 200 that we used to deal with in the past. Typical errors that our administrators made in the era of paper applications included the misspelling of names, omitting important information or registering a male applicant as a female, or vice versa. Now that students are completing the online forms themselves, our data is a lot more accurate. Errors have been reduced.”
Even though the Admissions Department has yet to calculate the savings realised from the significantly reduced use of paper, copying and scanning facilities, Malahlela believes some savings would be inevitable. He adds that his department was also able to re-direct half of their admin staff to a call centre that was created in 2018 to support aspiring students through the online application process and other related enquiries.
Stable internet a life-blood of the annual Open Week
He says the more stable internet has proven to be the life-blood of the annual Open Week in July, during which all feeder high schools visit the institution for a week to learn about its different faculties and programme offerings. During that week, Faculty / Academic administrators show the students how to apply online. “I cannot over-emphasise the importance of a functioning internet facility in that week – the main marketing platform for our institution. The demonstration that our administrators give to aspiring students on the online application process during Open Week; the access to Central Admissions computers and staff, given to aspiring first-time applicants and the high penetration of smart phones in the market, account for why we’ve ended up receiving so many applications online.”
Since online applications took root, the university now also encourages their returning students to register online and, with the kind of computer infrastructure laid out across the main campus (a total of 1,158 work stations spread in 13 computer labs), the returning students are able to walk into any computer lab to register. Even though the computer labs infrastructure is far from sufficient (an18-to-1 ratio if one takes the 21,000 student population into consideration), somehow, the system has managed to make this work.
System challenges are attributed to internal infrastructure problems
The Acting Deputy Registrar: Academic Administration admits that they have occasionally encountered system problems, due to a forced electricity shutdown stemming from load-shedding, as was the case in mid-February 2019. The UL also suffered a complete shut-down when the cable line between Polokwane and the main campus was vandalised in the past two years. “These were consequences of events beyond our control and not an internet problem per se.” Apart from teething problems they experienced during 2016/17 when online applications were a new development, Malahlela also recalls occasional periods of slow internet connectivity which resulted from system overload. “But we’ve learnt to manage our registration processes around critical dates in Finance and HR and, as a result, system stalling is also a thing of the past.
“Since things stabilised, everything is tick-tick-tick,” Malahlela says, clicking his fingers with glee. “Our registration this year was one of the best because of the smooth connectivity. Even journalists did not have much to report about and there was little to no reason for student discontent.”
Although Human Resources Information Systems, which operates out of the same building as Admissions, continues to experience frequent internet connectivity problems, Mr Gideon Ledwaba, Deputy Director: Service Desk (User Support) has ascribed this to an infrastructural problem that has nothing to do with the SANReN fibre line. The problem started with an upgrade on the telephone system to accommodate the new call centre. The older IP phones were found to be incompatible with the software upgrade which prompted replacement of the old telephones to resolve the problem at hand. Because the telephone and the computer share the internet infrastructure, breakage of the phone signal to the IP phones also affects internet connectivity. “As a temporary measure, we occasionally disconnect the voice line to enable the users to retain access to internet. Admittedly, this is not ideal. The affected staff will continue to suffer this inconvenience until the whole telephone system is completely overhauled. We’re already busy with the overhaul and we anticipate that this challenge will be resolved by end of May 2019.”
Another connectivity problem that continues to affect some buildings on UL’s main campus, according to Ledwaba, stems from old cabling in the older buildings that have been unable to carry the increased bandwidth speed all these years. As of 25 February, 2019 the upgrade of the old cabling from CAT 4-to-CAT 6upgrade, was underway. “By the end of this project, even the buildings previously without cabling will also be cabled, as will the academic areas previously without internet coverage. We will also increase WiFi access points to increase coverage to academic and administration buildings, hotspots around campus and in the student residences.” The anticipated end date for the CAT 4-to-CAT 6 upgrade is end of May 2019.
Even though WiFi provision was not part of the USAf/TENET support package, the increased bandwidth made WiFi connection possible and the University of Limpopo readily assumed the costs in this regard – much to staff and students’ convenience.
Thank You, USAf, for making our lives easier! Thank you, DHET, for the funding that made this possible
“In other words, huge credit for our overall internet stability is due to USAf, and to the Department of Higher Education and Training, that made the funding of this enormous support possible,” says the man who was well aware of USAf’s work – through the Matriculation Board — of validating foreign students’ qualifications for purposes of studying in South Africa’s Higher Education. The Acting Deputy Registrar was previously not aware that USAf was behind the RCCP.
“I also credit our ICT team, and among them I want to single out Mr Gideon Ledwaba, Deputy Director ICT Help Desk and Mr Simon Ndou: Manager – Network who always heed the call for assistance whenever we need it, and never drop the ball.
“Finally, I cannot sufficiently express the extent to which USAf has made our lives easier! Thank you very much, USAf, for doing a wonderful job!”