Universities South Africa (USAf) Media Update

Staff from the Universities SA Office are working from home

The Universities South Africa (USAf) Office has equipped its 46-member staff to work from home, with effect from 23 March. In a staff briefing held last Thursday to prepare them for working from home -- as USAf's response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic leading to Covid-19 disease -- Professor Ahmed Bawa, the Chief Executive Officer, said this was the best that the organisation could do, to ensure business continuity while protecting staff, clients and associates from direct human contact and its inherent risks. He said notwithstanding that South Africa's cases had now surpassed individuals returning from international travel to include in-country transmissions, this was still no cause for panic.

"We have been fortunate to be able to build on the dreadful experiences of China, South Korea, Italy and others," Prof Bawa told his staff. "Unlike Italy and some of the countries hardest hit in Europe, South Africa acted on this early enough. We must applaud our government for taking the steps they took, in time, to contain the local spread of the pandemic." He said ever since the first case was identified in South Africa on 4 March, the graph had climbed quite steeply. The purpose of imposing bans on large gatherings and now, a total lockdown, was to flatten the graph; to lessen the blow on the national health system and, even more importantly, to ensure continuing capacity to provide care, including intensive care where necessary.

Prof Bawa addressing staff
Staff listening attentively

Until the complete shutdown was declared last night, USAf had organised things in such a way as to keep skeleton staff manning the office from Monday to Friday. But the national lockdown now changes that arrangement.

For day-to-day operational management, the Office will utilise skype and similar other digital platforms to keep staff interconnected. Calls to the USAf switchboard number have been transferred to mobile numbers. Thus the USAf Office has prepared itself for business continuity, notwithstanding the lockdown that takes effect this week.

The Matriculation Board (MB), which receives large numbers of local and foreign individuals applying for exemption certificates that enable entry to South Africa's university system, has sufficiently capacitated its 18-member staff to process these applications from home. The MB has used social media, including the USAf website, to communicate these changes and to discourage physical visits to the office.

In the main, applications may be submitted to applications@usaf.ac.za or via the website at: http://mb.usaf.ac.za.

Sector support services to continue, albeit with limitations

Meanwhile, the USAf Office will resort to video-conferencing facilities to carry out engagements with the university sector and external stakeholders. Scheduled meetings of the Board of Directors, the Executive Committee and the various strategy groups will continue via video-conferencing to minimise interpersonal contact.

While USAf explores possibilities for online delivery of Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) training events, all events that were scheduled for March and April have been postponed until further notice. Communication on these changes has already taken place with participants and other stakeholders.

The closure of university campuses will affect the mode of delivery of large-crowd events of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme which were planned for 2020. The EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition and the EDHE Lekgotla 2020 have been postponed until September, with the possibility of executing them virtually -- for Plan B. Internal and regional rounds of the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition will continue along extended timelines. Where possible, the events will be implemented virtually, in line with the large gathering restrictions and the social distancing protocols in force.

Meetings of USAf's communities of practice, which were scheduled between March and July, have been postponed till further notice.

At last week's staff briefing, Prof Bawa said as far as universities were concerned, there was a strong likelihood that the 2020 academic year would be seriously impacted. As the epidemic unfolds, universities are working out how best to reorganise the academic year. "While some programmes will be able to continue online, it is very unlikely that the health sciences, engineering, natural sciences, and others that require laboratory work, will be prosecutable through pure online learning."

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