How Coronavirus Is Affecting Higher Education

Some universities including Wits have disabled their bio metric systems as a coronavirus caution. [Picture by Fatima Moosa]

The COVID-19 virus (coronavirus) has affected over 90 countries around the world. From schools to business and shops, normal life has been disrupted. In particular it has forced institutions of higher learning around the world to rethink their operations. This includes South Africa. 

UPDATE AS OF MARCH 16 2020: On March 15, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced several extraordinary measures and declared a national disaster. This included the closing of schools for an extended period of time as well as travel bans for high risk countries. With regards to universities, the president said consultations would take place between universities and the relevant ministers. 

However with the first local transmission of the virus confirmed at Wits University, many universities took steps to contain the virus. Wits suspended all contact classes and students on campus have been asked to remain in their residences. UKZN has suspended the academic programme and cancelled the April graduation season. UCT suspended the academic programme and has ordered residences to be vacated. UJ has suspended all contact classes and the autumn graduation has been postponed. University of Stellenbosch has also cancelled graduations. 

On Thursday, March 5 it was confirmed that South Africa had its first case of Covid-19. There are currently seven confirmed positive cases of coronavirus. With the confirmation of the first case, students took to social media asking for the biometric systems to be disabled. This was to ensure the spread of the virus could be minimised. 

Universities South Africa (Usaf) said that vice-chancellors have received a joint briefing on the virus from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. USAf have set up a page on their website where they will be sharing the messages that member universities are circulating amongst their campus communities.  

USAf said they hope institutions that are “still lagging behind will draw inspiration from those who have surged ahead in this regard.” 

In South Africa

The University of Pretoria announced that they would be temporarily disabling their biometric systems on all campuses, “as a precautionary measure and to minimise the possible spread of the virus.” The university has also provided information for students about who to contact and what to do if they feel sick. 

Wits University announced on Sunday that they would also be deactivating their biometrics system temporarily as well in light of the first cases of coronavirus. 

At the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), the vice-chancellor announced that the university’s college of health sciences would be launching a coordinated plan to respond to the virus. This plan would look at high level surveillance, prevention and response measures to make sure that UKZN is ready. KZN currently has the highest number of cases with six out of the seven cases situated in the province. 

The University of Cape Town (UCT) has put together a UCT business continuity management coordinating committee. This committee will be responsible for responding to the outbreak and will monitor any developments around COVID-19. 

While at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), an incident management task team has been established. The team has been tasked with taking proactive steps to deal with incidents related to coronavirus. 

Stellenbosch University has put together a contingency committee consisting of various experts from the Centre for Infectious Diseases and the Division of Medical Virology, the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, the SU Campus Health Service and others.

Many universities have put up notices on their websites and social media advising students about precautions to take to keep themselves safe. 

Around the world

In the United States of America with cases reaching over a 100 000, many universities across the country have closed. Classes have been cancelled, especially in the states and areas hardest hit by the virus, including the Seattle area, California and New York. Travel advisories have also been issued for students, especially to the countries worst hit by the virus. At some universities, students have been asked to work off-campus. 

In Australia, the University of Tasmania has cut the number of courses in order to be sustainable. The university’s vice chancellor Rufus Black said in a message to staff: “The impact of Covid-19 is still not certain […] We have a long way to go in dealing with this issue and its consequences will last well beyond this year.” 

At the university of Sydney, student accommodation has been converted into a quarantine zone to house international students as they undergo 14-day periods of self-isolation. 

Italy, which is one of the worst hit countries has been put in a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. Last week the education minister announced that schools would be closed. 

Iran, South Korea, Qatar amongst others have all precautions by cancelling classes or closing universities to deal with the outbreak. 

Many universities around the world have had to rethink the way classes and teaching operates. Many foreign students who have been unable to return to universities from their home countries due to travel bans. 

Racism at universities 

Besides the loss of learning time at many universities, another issue has been the racism. Many experts have said that a bigger threat than the virus has been misinformation and the spread of racism. There have been reports of racism and xenophobia against East Asian people, with some of these encounters even being violent. 

A video has been going around purportedly showing students from the university of Venda making taunting remarks towards a student of East Asian descent.

Featured image by Fatima Moosa