EXPERT OPINION: ‘The COVID-19 crisis has taught us how tertiary education needs to change in order to prepare our students for an ever-changing global environment’ – UP Vice-Chancellor Prof Tawana Kupe

Posted on January 04, 2022

It is not possible to think about the future of tertiary education, in South Africa and globally, without considering the direct and significant impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the landscape. While in no way minimising the devastation and upheaval of the past 21 months, the opportunity to be uncharacteristically flexible and responsive has taught higher education institutions and universities a number of lessons which they can carry forward in order to shape a successful future.

One of the most obvious silver linings has been the fast-forwarding of the use of technology, into innovative ways of meeting, communicating, teaching, and learning. While the blurring of the lines between traditional and distance education has been noted for a number of years, the pandemic quickly erased these boundaries, revealing the benefits of synchronous online conferencing systems like Zoom and Google Meet, which allow experts from anywhere in the world to join online lectures, as well as record presentations for learners to watch at a later stage. We also saw how the importance of hands-on, experiential learning led to innovations such as virtual field trips and virtual laboratories, and how educators were given the rare chance to consider new strategies for their lesson plans. Given the enriched learning experience and flexibility presented through the online format, it is unlikely that we will ever return to contact-only teaching and learning; and we certainly have a very interesting hybrid opportunity to take into the post-pandemic world.

While the University of Pretoria and other leading universities were able to transition almost seamlessly to virtual learning, it became very apparent that, in order for tertiary education institutions to remain inclusive, provision would need to be made for those students who could not access the learning management system due to living in areas with no internet reception or access to electricity. Over 2400 University of Pretoria students received loan laptops and hard copies of their study material, as well as telephonic tutoring. Lack of access to the internet and the cost of data need to be urgently addressed in South Africa and other developing countries so it does not lead to deepening of inequality and discrimination.

Internationalisation may have a lasting impact on tertiary education. While previously the financial model of many South African universities depended on a large cohort of international students, the pandemic forced the question: What are alternative modes of internationalisation with regard to student mobility? What courses could be co-created and taught online, to include large numbers? In the global South, many students are not able to access international education, unless they receive a bursary. There is a huge opportunity to offer an international curriculum which transcends borders and boundaries.

The future of education has also been changed by the rise in open science, with champions sharing knowledge through open access and collaborative development. This prevents “fetishising” ‘premier league’ versus ‘minor league’ research, allowing for the focus to be on the impact of knowledge instead. With interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research better suited to solving the complex problems that humanity faces, there is a need to make academia more accessible.

Having made it through lockdown, it was a welcome relief for students to be able to return to campus, given that there are many aspects of tertiary education – the social dimension in particular – that simply cannot be replicated through a virtual format. Key to keeping safe on campus is ensuring a high vaccination rate. According to Professor Ramneek Ahluwalia, CEO of Higher Health - the health, wellness and development agency of the South African Department of Higher Education’s post-schooling education and training sector, 16 universities and six technical vocational education and training colleges have vaccination sites on campus. He also said that the higher education sector has hired 16 000 student volunteers to help encourage their peers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. At the University of Pretoria, we launched the ‘Stop the Spread’ campaign to encourage students to vaccinate. The aim is to reach as many members of the university community as possible, in order to create awareness and to provide education, through the use of testimonials by medical experts and the university leadership. We have established a dedicated COVID-19 webpage with information and questions and answers on the benefits of getting a vaccination.

Vaccines are the most accessible and most powerful means to get out of the pandemic, which has not only unleashed pain and suffering but is also putting additional pressure on South Africa’s 26 public universities, where financial sustainability risks have been mounting over the past decade. At the end of May this year, universities received an amended ministerial statement indicating that the block grant allocation, the government subsidy that makes up the main source of a public university’s income stream, had been cut, mainly due to increased allocations to the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). With almost R2.5 billion reprioritised from university allocations, higher education institutions were sent into a shock wave and had to redo budgets and review commitments. This, together with the increasing financial risk of unpaid student fees, means that universities need to be bolder than ever before, developing fundraising campaigns for bursaries, expanding international fundraising, and substantially increasing external research funding to offset the funding crisis.

Maintaining a high standard of tertiary education is of paramount importance, given the complexities that the labour market of tomorrow will face. This is particularly true in Africa, where we urgently need well-educated, skilled, rounded leaders who can be path-breakers of the African knowledge economy.

Our role as higher education institutions is to prepare graduates with the necessary skills to navigate their future workplaces. At the University of Pretoria’s soon-to-be-launched Centre for the Future of Work, research is underway to ascertain how best to educate a generation of young people who will enter a labour market in which 85% of the jobs on offer have not been created.

This job market will certainly be increasingly dominated by the gig economy – temporary and freelance positions driven both by necessity, due to job scarcity, as well as through the appeal of a more balanced and flexible lifestyle, preferred by millennials. Skills such as entrepreneurship, marketing, strategic thinking and using social media effectively will all become the norm as people look for work opportunities rather than a job, and these are skills that students can learn in order to adequately prepare them for what lies ahead.

The gig economy is also set to become all the more important as the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) gains traction. Marked by breakthroughs in fields including robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, internet of things (IoT), quantum computing and biotechnology, students need to be educated with fundamental and foundational skills in mathematics, stochastics, programming, electronics, problem solving, critical thinking and design, which can be applied in a new 4IR work environment. Aspects pertaining to professional practice, communication, creativity, collaboration, ethics, emotional intelligence and human values such as empathy, along with environmental and social responsibility, also need to find their way into tertiary curricula. 

In a discussion around the 4IR with some University of Pretoria alumni who have become global experts in their fields, the skill of learning, unlearning, and relearning was earmarked as essential, given that the skills that graduates will need for their first job will become obsolete, requiring constant re-skilling throughout their careers in order to maintain employability. Cultivating the habit of lifelong learning can go a long way towards preparing students for this reality.

Our young people have had to develop a significant amount of resilience and adaptability in order to navigate their way through the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis may well have changed our world and our global outlook, and it has also taught us how tertiary education needs to change in order to better prepare our students for an ever-changing global environment, in which they can be the change makers who find solutions to the many complex problems our world faces, and have a positive impact on society.

Professor Tawana Kupe is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared in Beeld on 29 December 2021.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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