First strikes, now Covid-19 delay dreams of varsity first-years

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First strikes, now Covid-19 delay dreams of varsity first-years

Not to mention online learning obstacles for these youngsters who already struggled to get into university

Journalist
Walter Sisulu University says the patchy rural cellphone network hampers its use of online platforms.
Low net worth Walter Sisulu University says the patchy rural cellphone network hampers its use of online platforms.
Image: Lulamile Feni

Masiluve Makini was delighted when he registered for a diploma in management at Walter Sisulu University in February following a five-year struggle to get into university. But he is yet to see the inside of a lecture hall.

At the start of the academic year WSU was crippled by a protracted student strike over fees. When the impasse subsided the coronavirus forced the country into lockdown. Now, Makini, 25, fears his strategy  to “escape poverty” might be delayed by another year.

“I am very anxious,” he said. “I passed matric in 2015 and I struggled to get into university, and when I finally got the opportunity, the strike started. When the students’ issues were being ironed out and I hoped to finally attend classes, then the coronavirus came and lockdown was announced.

“This year has not been kind to me, it has been the worst part of my life.”

WSU is considering online teaching, but Makini, who is from Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape, said that would only compound his problems. “I don’t have access to a computer and data,” he said.

Classmate Siphelele Sanda, 19, said he had never had access to a computer. “It is going to be a challenge for many of us. My parents sacrificed whatever little they had to raise me. They expect a lot from me but my dreams will be delayed. I haven’t made any progress this year.”

Anga Gqibelo, 22, said be was “shocked, lost and confused. I planned to finish my diploma in policing in record time as my parents are looking up to me to improve our living conditions.”

University of KwaZulu-Natal student Tharshy Naidoo, 19, has suffered the same fate after protests kept him and 9,200 other first-year students out of class.

“I am studying computer science at the Westville campus, which was the most affected by the protests,” he said. “We were pulled out of lectures, teargassed, and infrastructure was set on fire. This year has been defined by chaos, disruption and confinement.”

WSU spokesperson Yonela Tukwayo said the patchy rural cellphone network hampered the institution’s use of online platforms.

“After dipstick research we discovered that although networks have zero-rated the websites, many of our students come from rural areas where 3G coverage is poor,” said Tukwayo.

“The protracted strike at the beginning of the year impacted the entire student body. However, first-year orientation programmes were disrupted and therefore they were not fully inducted.”

She said it was difficult for WSU to help students make up for lost time. “It is difficult to do that at this stage because the Covid-19 pandemic is still too fluid. Nobody knows when normal operations will resume.”

UKZN spokesperson Normah Zondo said the institution was negotiating with mobile service providers for data that could be transferred to students.

“During the lockdown Zoom or online lectures will take place, covering the theoretical component of the curriculum,” Zondo said.

The University of the Western Cape has appealed to the public and businesses for funds, data and laptops to help poor students complete the academic year. The university’s second semester started on Monday.

“Our research reveals a harsh reality – 30% of our 24,000-strong student body does not have access to devices like laptops, or even data, while on lockdown at home. There are grave disparities among our students with regard to their socio-economic backgrounds,” the institution said this week.

The picture is different at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Wits.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the institution “has identified the few students who have not received laptops and will be distributed to them wherever they are. These will be loan laptops – not a donation – and they must be returned to UCT at the end of the 2020 academic programme.”

Wits said that between 10% and 15% of students did not have access to “appropriate computing devices, adequate access to data or conducive learning environments”. The institution said it would loan “basic devices” to the needy students. 

The University of Johannesburg said at the weekend it had already distributed 1,750 laptops to qualifying first-year NSFAS students and had another 4,000 available to distribute.

“We continue to work closely with telecommunications providers with a view to provide more data solutions to our students, so that they may perform their studies efficiently,” it said.