Business continuity in the face of COVID-19 dominates the agenda of the USAf Board of Directors’ meeting

Published On: 1 April 2020|

The impact of the coronavirus on universities’ operations dominated the agenda of USAf’s Board of Directors’ meeting on Tuesday, 24 March. The meeting which was executed via video-conferencing to observe the social distancing regulations and the restrictions imposed on large-group gatherings, was attended by all universities, with the exception of two. At the invitation of the University of Pretoria’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tawana Kupe, the Directors were linked from a UP auditorium which hosted the UP VC, a delegate of the TUT VC, the USAf CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa and his team of four officials.

This was the first time in the history of South Africa’s universities that a Board meeting was held virtually. “Thanks are in order to Professor Tawana Kupe and the University of Pretoria for hosting this engagement,” says Professor Sibongile Muthwa, USAf’s Chairperson. Apart from the Board’s Special Meeting that was held face-to-face on 19 February, chairing this meeting also marked Professor Sibongile Muthwa’s debut – online – since taking over as the USAf Chairperson on 1 January 2020. Professor Muthwa is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University.

One of the major concerns to the vice-chancellors was to understand how the academic year would play itself out taking into account that most universities closed early for the Easter recess, which was subsequently extended on account of the national lockdown. Technically, the end date to the national lockdown is 16 April. However, whether South Africa can revert to normal business as of that date depends on the extent of spread of the disease and whether, based on data and scientific advice it receives, the national government decides to halt or extend the lockdown.

Taking into consideration the uncertainties related to COVID-19, the USAf Board decided on 20 April, 2020 as a planning horizon, allowing the sector to respond to the fluidity related to the trajectory of the lockdown. That notwithstanding, the vice-chancellors made a consensus commitment to do all in their power to complete the 2020 academic year, and to stick to a common re-opening date across the system. “This means that as we head towards April 20th, we will monitor the changes in the trajectory of the pandemic and will shape and reshape our approach to completing the academic year accordingly,” Professor Ahmed Bawa explains. “At all times, we shall be guided by the evidence and science available to us and to decisions of the national government.”

Majority of students are not ready to switch completely to online learning
Members of the Board engaged in robust debates over the impact of this disease on the academic programme. While some reported a 90% readiness to deliver classes online, and some even declared that they were prepared to resume classes – online – from as early as 1 April, others urged for a serious introspection over how the sector might ensure that all of its students were able to continue to study, virtually. While students from the lower socio-economic backgrounds may form a minority at some universities, at others they may form a majority of up to 90%. And then, of course, there may be a need for a programme of capacity-building of academics so that they are sufficiently capacitated to offer teaching virtually.

There was also recognition that there may be some students who live in circumstances totally unconducive to learning, in overcrowded homes with insufficient amenities that would make it impossible for them to function suitably.

Stemming from this debate, one view was that universities may be forced to stay totally closed until the national lockdown is lifted, and consider re-opening around August/September alongside the university system in the northern hemisphere. This view, championing continuity of contact teaching as we know it, assumed that the new start date would also shift the dates of writing of final basic schooling examinations such that university applications and admission dates towards 2021 would all be synchronised to a different start-date of the 2021 academic year. This may be an opportunity to embark on a wide-scale capacity development drive to equip academics, and students, to online learning as soon as humanly possible.

To summarise, the vice-chancellors committed themselves and the universities to completing the 2020 academic year. They will consider April 20, 2020 as a planning horizon and will work with the state on determining how the universities respond to the changing dynamics of the pandemic. It was agreed that every attempt would be made to ensure that learning takes place during the lockdown.

These are just some of the 26 vice-chancellors who attended the virtual meeting on 24 March. All of them had dialled in from their respective campuses.

At the invitation of the University of Pretoria’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tawana Kupe, the meeting of the Board was video-linked from a UP auditorium that hosted him (next to Prof Bawa), a delegate of the TUT VC, Professor Stanley Mukhola (middle), the USAf CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa (at the far end) and his team of USAf officials.

Alternative delivery platforms for academic programmes, postgraduate programmes and research
The Board agreed that USAf would consult with Deputy Vice-Chancellors: Academic and Research to determine the nature, extent and depth of response interventions required to maintain quality teaching, learning and research – across the board. This consultation would determine sectoral needs and take into account the great diversity and inequality of South Africa’s institutions. Parallel to this process, USAf would be engaging other stakeholders to explore the possibility of securing free data from the major players in the telecommunications industry, to enable students, and academics, to access the virtual sites of their universities and thus continue quality teaching, learning and research – online. USAf would also be engaging additional stakeholders to explore additional support to universities – in the face of this crisis – through digital infrastructure development and additional funding to support capacity building in this regard.

The USAf Board of Directors recognised that even if teaching and learning could resume immediately online, it still left questions unanswered regarding laboratory and contact-based research and post-graduate programmes. Answers would be sought at meetings of DVCs Research and Academic to discuss continuity plans and any immediate inherent challenges.

Continuity of Essential / Critical Services
The vice-chancellors expressed concern over continuity of essential services on campus during the lockdown. They cited information technology services; continued running and maintenance of science laboratories, veterinary science facilities, agricultural farms with animal stock; services relating to emergency and disaster management; human resource and finance functions, etc. It was decided that each university would provide USAf with a list of categories of staff that would need access to the various university campuses to provide essential/critical services during the lockdown period. USAf was working on securing guidelines on how these categories of staff would be accredited to move about.

Universities regard the national lockdown as a normal working period
The Board agreed that COVID-19 was presenting an unforeseen, unprecedented national crisis, and that this period would therefore be seen as a normal working period.

Responding to demands for Essential Work Allowance during Lockdown
Trade unions were demanding an allowance over and above one’s salary, for the employees being asked to continue to provide essential services during the lockdown period. In pursuit of a sectoral response in this regard, USAf would convene a meeting of the HR Directors’ Forum to advise on this matter and to determine if there was a need for legal advice in this regard.

Financial Sustainability Issues
The vice-chancellors also raised a cash-flow concern closely linked to a possible drop in tuition fees income on account of the lockdown. In mitigation of all the associated risks (also relating to NSFAS funding of residences, etc) USAf would convene a meeting of members of the Finance Executive Forum and the Funding Strategy Group to discuss both short and long term financial sustainability implications of the pandemic. The purpose of this exercise was to determine whether projections would require the State to change its funding schedule for universities, amongst other solutions.

Review of accreditation and reporting dates
Stemming from the national lockdown and the absence of staff from university campuses, visits of professional bodies for the accreditation of programmes were now adversely affected. So were the reporting deadlines of the DHET; meeting the requirements around infrastructure grants and the audits driven by the Council on Higher Education. The Board agreed that the lockdown was a universal crisis affecting normal operations of even all the entities implicated in various regards.

In order to find sectoral remedies for these disruptions, USAf would engage the DHET and the other affected agencies to secure a shift of all the deadlines outlined above. To that end, USAf would consult with universities further to obtain comprehensive information on all looming deadlines.

Management of Residences
Universities had already decided on an individual basis to close early for the end-of-term-one recess. In the process, they had made varying decisions regarding which students (especially international students) were allowed to stay on campuses during this period, and also with regard to autumn graduation ceremonies. Because of the different circumstances facing each institution, the Board deemed it best for institutions to continue on this trajectory. Each institution would make decisions on student residences in accordance with its operational policies and procedures.

That said, USAf would convene a meeting of Student Deans and Directors of International Offices to develop a sectoral picture with regard to each institution’s practices, decisions and lessons there might be to share across the board in these various regards.

Universities are willing to provide COVID-19 relief in their localities
In response to some vice-chancellors’ offers to contribute to the containment of the coronavirus, the Board suggested that each university work with local, provincial or national government structures and other civil society actors to determine how best to get involved. While some universities are able to produce hand sanitisers in response to the imminent shortage – subject to availability of raw materials – others might consider offering their empty student residences for quarantine purposes. Medical schools were contemplating levels of human resources support ranging from providing testing services to deploying students to the far-flung areas of the country, for the purpose of disseminating information on the coronavirus and to work alongside doctors and nurses. In addition to the support that universities are already providing through epidemiologists, mathematical modelers, virologists, infectious disease specialists, etc. offering their expertise, vice-chancellors also offered to work with government on data analytics, further research and innovation.

Another COVID-19 update from the NICD
At the same meeting, Professor Cheryl Cohen, Head of the Centre for Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, was once more invited to give an update to the USAf Board of Directors on the current state of the coronavirus in South Africa. Professor Cohen was also able to answer questions of vice-chancellors regarding the virus and its management.

According to Professor Cohen (right) scientific projections suggest that we might remain in this lockdown for the next six months, subject to more data being made available in the next two weeks. “We therefore need to be realistic in our planning,” she advised the USAf Board.

The Board gives a nod to additional office space at the Hadefields Office Park
Further to the decisions made around the coronavirus, the USAf Board granted approval for the acquisition of additional office space at the USAf Office, to accommodate staff needed to administer a newly-acquired grant from the Education, Training and Development Sectoral Education and Training Agency, in support of especially missing-middle students within member universities. USAf will report in due course on the detail of this grant, its purpose and how it will be disbursed.

The next meeting of the Board, to be combined with USAf’s Annual General Meeting, is scheduled to take place from 23 to 24 June, 2020.