Public universities face tough financial decisions in normalising blended teaching post-CoVID

Published On: 13 July 2022|

South Africa’s cash-strapped higher education system adapting to a post-pandemic blended teaching and learning model needs to rethink funding modalities.

When factoring in costs for ‘the new normal’ – including access to data, technological infrastructure, devices and connectivity – the need for funding planning becomes even more critical. This was surmised by a panel of senior higher education leaders who unpacked policy implications on funding, of findings of two research studies that explored student and staff experiences during the CoVID-19 pandemic.

Findings from these two surveys – Students’ Access to and Use of Learning Materials (SAULM) and Staff Experiences of, and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning and its Future (SEP-TLF) – were presented to senior academics, policy makers and stakeholders at a hybrid symposium hosted on 28 June, by Universities South Africa (USAf) in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education and the University of the Free State.  The symposium, held physically at the National Research Foundation’s headquarters in Pretoria, also provided for online participation via zoom.

The session on Funding Implications was chaired by Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Group Executive: Strategy, Planning and Partnerships of the National Research Foundation.

Mr Manie Regal (left), Chief Finance Officer at the University of the Western Cape, speaking on the theme Expanding Student Financial Aid, painted a bleak picture as he identified two issues: NSFAS and the missing middle. “We have only to read the country’s financial position to know we are in trouble when it comes to funding. Institutions would remember that we received a letter from DHET saying there is a NSFAS shortfall of R1,5billion. Even after scraping around for some hundreds of millions, the Department was still short of R1,2billion, which will have to come from the sector. So we’re in for a difficult time. Part of the financial strategy is that each institution must consider how it is going to adapt to this new normal of short funding because NSFAS is struggling, and there’s just not enough money in the fiscus,” he said.

He believes there has to be a policy review looking at such issues as: What qualifies you as a student? What is the extent of the funding? “Our state subsidy funding framework is 50 years old if not older.”

“It’s time to review the funding formula because of this new normal. One thing we cannot ignore is that when operational planning decisions are made, finance professionals are left out and come in as an afterthought, as they get told to make things happen. We need better integration in our planning, going forward. It is not a pretty picture that we’re looking at. We need to do things differently.”

Speaking on Financial implications on implementing blended learning, Mr Regal listed as a major challenge the issue of power and connectivity.  “What does it mean to have multi-modal teaching when electricity is no longer around? Part of our business continuity planning must be to use available resources, which might exclude electricity. We’re at Level 6 of loadshedding today. Will the systems be up and running in the absence of energy? Alternative solutions are not always reliable and there is a large cost to implementing a hybrid solution. Perhaps the institutions successfully using alternative sources of energy can share their experiences with us.”

He also spoke of costs related to internet infrastructure and connectivity and the security of that infrastructure. He said some institutions have invested in infrastructure made available to students in between classes, but even that is no longer available because the facilities have to be locked up when not in use. He said the cost of infrastructure security, staff training, usage, and software maintenance, is real. Mr Regal also spoke of costs related to curriculum design. Coming to students’ profiles, he added that commuting to campus at today’s transport costs is increasingly becoming prohibitive. “Should we be giving students a choice, between attending lectures online or in-person? What are the costs associated with either option?”

Dr Linda Meyer (right): Director: Operations and Sector Support at the USAf Office explored the theme The national approach to digital skills development and the funding implications of developing and supporting academic leaders.  Digitally empowering students, she said, had to be measured against the backdrop of a constrained higher education ecosystem. Crafting a vision for transformation had to include equitable access to appropriate technology for teaching and learning, and in advancing teaching infrastructure.

To do this, costs for enabling stable connectivity, electricity, security, access to digital devices, insurance and replacement costs had to be factored in.  The following, she said, were important:

  • Selecting and negotiating transversal agreements that are critical to the university sector
  • Selecting, negotiating, crafting, adapting and implementing sector wide targeted digital skills programmes to meet the needs of staff and students.

She said defining digital literacy and assessment at pragmatic levels must be determined within each specific context. “We cannot just measure input costs for digital devices or training interventions in this transformative enablement. The entire ecosystem needs to pivot and advance and ensure that the components have resource stability.” Financial modelling on cost implications for digital skills development has to assess the level of inputs, outputs and outcomes needed for implementation, Dr Meyer added. “The national financial framework must leverage on recognising opportunities to sweat efficiencies. Where possible, all universities should have access to nationally constructed infrastructure and programmes, owned by the university system – to avoid duplication and optimise return on investment.

Dr Meyer asked: what would the cost be, if we fail to develop digital skills among our students?

Since universities “must be locally recognised, regionally respected and internationally competitive, the cost would be that our students would not function competitively, locally, regionally or globally. In this digital age, one cannot enter the labour market without the prerequisite skills as a minimum entry level.”

Hybrid and blended modalities really meant optimising efficiencies, Dr Meyer added. “There needs to be systemic investment into the system to enable and capacitate staff and students to access and leverage this new potential…Attaining the target of 1.6 million students by 2030 will not be possible unless we capacitate our students and staff adequately.”

Dr Gary Paul (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Resources and Operations at the Central University of Technology explored funding mechanisms. “The best way to make money is to save money. South Africa is facing an economic trifactor: high unemployment — especially among youth, increasing interest rates and slow economic growth.”  He added that core critical skills are leaving South Africa. “We radically need to rethink the operating models of universities in order to enhance financial sustainability, institutional viability and resilience,” he said.

His ideas:

  • Some academic programmes will have to be presented online to optimise teaching and learning, academic support and human resource capabilities.
  • Outsourcing of non-core services should be considered given the ballooning costs at institutions.
  • We need to caution being all things to all people through the academic programmes that we offer.
  • There is a definite need for us to pursue sustainability and smart campus initiatives to reduce operating costs.
  • We need to negotiate smarter with mobile network operators, for example, to get more competitive data prices.
  • We need to think about optimising space. The notion of single-person-use offices should be revisited.
  • The notion of buying off campus infrastructure might be attractive because we could sell them and make a profit.
  • Diversifying income streams. It is important that we knock harder on the doors of the private sector.
  • The redirection of funding allocations is important.
  • We need to explore the notion of shared value contracting with our suppliers who happily take our money; they need to reinvest back into the institution.

On embracing and implementing digital transformation, Dr Paul said “The total cost of ownership and of pursuing digital transformation is something we need to think about. The costs of not providing staff with digital skills training would be staggering, given that digital literacy is said to correlate with organisational agility. Past research studies indicate that digitally competent staff deliver an improved performance, and that digital literacy is an important antecedent for adoption, by staff, of new technologies within the workplace.”

Questions and Answers

Dr Tshepo Teele, a Researcher in the Council on higher Education’s Research, Monitoring and Advice department expressed a concern that universities were not using available learning management systems efficiently for teaching and learning. He said tools such as the Blackboard, or e-Thuto, were mainly being used to circulate learning materials, as opposed to being utilised to advance learning. He submitted that private, especially distance learning institutions use these tools far more than contact and public institutions. “Could we therefore develop these tools to put them to better use, and, if so, what are the financial implications of doing so?”

Dr Gary Paul said this problem went to the heart of the cost of not implementing a digital literacy skills development programme. “To maximise technologies that are available on platforms there must be an intentional effort on the part of leadership. All stakeholders, including labour, have to embrace digital literacy. If we do not, it will translate into financial cost. I’m all for maximising technology, not as a substitute for face-to-face learning but as a primary method of delivery.”

Professor Lis Lange, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning at theUniversity of Cape Town added that to deliver a blended model, universities would need more, not fewer, staff. She therefore submitted that any plan to expand the system with blended learning was not a viable option for a system looking to cut costs.

Dr Phethiwe Mututu, Group Executive at the NRF said Professor Lange’s point was apt, considering the large percentage of part time vs full-time teaching staff. “If we are to adopt a student-centred approach, we need other types of skills – data analysts, negotiators, psychologists, etc, so staffing is key to this debate. Mr Regal, how would you respond to that?”

Mr Manie Regal: There is cost related to planning, or the additional business process that institutions did not have before. It’s going to be a question of leadership. There is a finite pool of funds available to any institution. It depends on the leadership and the appetite there is to implement change, what change processes are in place, and a reconfiguration of costs. There is no doubt that there will be savings, as much as additional costs. The institution’s leadership must take charge and own that project of the reconfiguration of costs, to make funds available internally.

Dr Linda Meyer: Prof Lange’s point is important. Digitising programmes is expensive, but the cost-benefit analysis shows that a return on investment, over time, is feasible.  Initial investment is critical but supporting and maintenance costs will be lower.

In conclusion to the session on Funding Implications, Mr Manie Regal said he doubted that institutions would be able to raise funds externally. “If you’re lucky to get support from an external donor, that’s great, but I think tough decisions will need to be made within institutions: they must align their resources with their business strategy. That is how they will make funds available for that additional business process.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa