Our way of engagement was affected, and we had to sit down with various stakeholders to consider how we could move forward in a positive and constructive manner while responding to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. As student leaders, our activism and advocacy of student issues, in a rapidly changing situation had to constantly be modified and re-evaluated. We had to think of solutions for an unprecedented crisis, make suggestions and advise the university management on opportunities and strategies, while balancing our responsibility to our constituents.
The role of student leaders during COVID-19
The role of liaison between the student populace and the university management was taxing. As students who were also feeling the acute impacts of the pandemic, the many student issues brought to the student representative council (SRC) in the transitionary period to online learning also resonated with us. During this time, student leadership brought these challenges to the attention of the University management, so as to ensure a joint response with the SRC. In our approach, we had to ensure that not only do we advocate for the issues of the students when in discussion with management, but that we present solutions that the University could implement without hesitation. However, we had to understand that not all the solutions and requests made to the university would be met. Communicating this to a frustrated student body was incredibly difficult as they were eager to have their challenges resolved.
Students without technological resources at home used cell phones to type and submit 3000-word essays to ensure their participation in an online learning system that did not cater to them @katt_005Tweet
Student issues during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the depth of the socio-economic inequalities that exist in our society and country at large. Most students who depended on the resources that were available on campuses such as computer labs, Wi-Fi, and the library resources were compromised. Students without technological resources at home, found themselves using their cell phones to type and submit 3000-word essays just so that they could continue their participation in an online learning system that did not cater to them. All of this while experiencing poor internet connection, due to not having network coverage in their home areas. Others had to study in unconducive home environments where they struggled with issues of no electricity, lack of adequate study space and having to share a room with up to four siblings.
In trying to address these issues, all stakeholders (university management, student leaders and students) rallied behind a common call that “no student should be left behind”. Amongst other things that we advocated for was that students should be able to purchase or rent laptops ( on their student account as part of study materials purchased from the university) and that those who did not want a laptop have their study material couriered to them. Further, we advocated for the provision of sufficient data bundles to all students, the zero-rating of academic learning platforms and a request was made to the university to draft a catch-up plan to ensure that the students who were left behind receive help.
Our activism as student leaders had to change. During the pre-COVID-19, it was easy to call the Vice-Chancellor’s Office or simply arrange a face-to-face meeting, where we could discuss and address student issues. The arrival of COVID-19 upended our ability to function in such a manner. This impacted on the SRC-University Management relationship which came under strain when we could not reach an agreement over student issues. One example of this, is when the University commenced with virtual teaching and learning, whilst many students had not yet received their laptops and study materials. At this point, conflict was at its peak because the University was commencing with teaching and learning whilst “leaving other students behind.” Our view was that the University’s focus was on ensuring that the academic year was completed on time, despite the disruptions brought on by COVID-19. However, only those students who had resources were able to attend online lessons, and this meant that the rest of the students were being left behind. During this period, we had to calm students and reassure them that the SRC was dealing with their challenges and grievances. As the student body we were also spread-out across South Africa and the rest of the continent, and we could not mobilise to put pressure on the University Management.
This crisis has provided us with an opportunity to strategically think about the future and make radical changes within our education system @katt_005Tweet
In response, the SRC initiated a “boycott online teaching and learning,” campaign, in which we called on all students and academic staff to stand in solidarity to ensure that “no student should be left behind”. The campaign was not easy to carry out, mainly because we could not monitor or stop students from attending online lectures. Students were either not able to participate in the online learning programme because they were without resources or because lectures continued despite the boycott and they were afraid of falling behind.
COVID-19 and the Impact on the mental wellbeing of students
Most students’ mental health was severely affected during this period. Adjusting to change is generally not easy and adapting to online learning was definitely a big challenge for students. The daily harsh realities that students had to endure affected their academic performance. The resulting anxiety coupled with other stress around scarce resources, COVID-19 infections, deaths of family members, and retrenchments all added to the tension and pressure that affected the mental wellness of students. In addition to this, most students were finding it hard to carry the workload, as many would say they were “chasing submission deadlines instead of learning”. It is very important to not assume that all students are tech-savvy, particularly some of our first-year students who really struggled because the pandemic hit South Africa about 5 weeks into their academic year. Some students did not know how to operate the laptops that they received from the University, having never been exposed to computer literacy lessons. In addressing the issue of mental wellness amongst the student populace, the University offered virtual counselling which was championed by professional and well-trained psychologists. However, it is my view that these students should have been given extra support by the University as this pressure resulted in some students succumbing to acts of plagiarism, which begged the question of whether the students found any value in the online learning experience?
As student leaders, we held online mental health awareness campaigns and hosted webinars that dealt directly with the issue. Altogether, the resilience that was displayed by students and the academic staff is remarkable and must be commended. Through all the hardships, lecturers managed to deliver modified online course materials and students were able to progress to the next level of their degrees.
#FeesMustFall in the COVID-19 context
Added to COVID-related anxieties, students also continued to grapple with grievances related to fee reduction, an issue dating back to 2015. We have also witnessed this year, another #FeesMustFall protest with student leaders calling for a total shutdown of institutions of higher learning. We need the government to invest in education that will serve its purpose and for universities to stop operating as profit-based institutions. It is important to remember that the initial contract entered into between the student as the client, and the University as the service provider, is one in which money is exchanged for services such as access to libraries, laboratories, Wi-Fi and campus housing. As a result of the pandemic, the University has defaulted on this contract and as such, it must be renegotiated, particularly as students are left without access to the many resources stipulated in the initial agreement.
COVID-19, education and beyond
This pandemic has shown us how the government has under invested in the education sector. It has exposed our government’s failures to optimally take advantage of the fruits of the fourth industrial revolution. Moreover, it has revealed the state’s incompetence and corruption. To better prepare ourselves for a crisis of this nature, universities should develop a strategic plan that can be implemented when normal contact lectures/classes are suspended. This plan should be redesigned in such a way that it will accommodate all students, particularly the most vulnerable amongst us. This crisis has provided us with an opportunity to strategically think about the future and make radical changes within our education system. The sharing of resources and collaboration between institutions of higher learning is one opportunity that should be explored, so that we can have institutions that complement each other instead of competing.
Katlego Mphahlele is the former SRC President of Rhodes University for 2020.