The pandemic has forced us to rethink the way universities operate. Change is happening fast and it’s vital that new models of teaching and learning at higher education level are developed sooner rather than later.


The Covid-19 pandemic has catapulted our lives online at a speed we could not have imagined by the end of 2019. Access to a reliable internet connection has never been more important in a variety of sectors. It has, in a particular way, redirected most of our public universities. Suddenly, a conversation about the future implications of the 4th Industrial Revolution looks very different – the future is less far off.

And, where traditional residential or contact universities thought they could slowly introduce the possibility of online and/or blended learning opportunities, with a focus on the so-called learn-and-earn market, the implementation of remote emergency learning (based on the principles of online learning) was almost immediate.

At our institutions of higher learning, the focus is now squarely on conducive IT infrastructure, student connectivity and the possibility of hosting contact classes fully online. While this is not so strange for the postgraduate sector, it certainly is something new for the greater part on an undergraduate, full degree level.

Given, these adjustments are in the first instance made to guide us through the immediate challenges. But it is almost certain that lessons learned, and changes implemented, will have an impact on the future agenda. Only time will tell what the specific future long-term implications will be in the context of higher education.

How should we define a residential university?

Residential universities are loosely defined as institutions where on-campus/contact classes and living are promoted, and where the learning experience of students are packaged within a model that focuses on holistic, contact learning. These institutions see some students staying on campus and have as focus co-curricular programmes, including leadership development, sport, cultural activities, student societies, volunteerism, etc.

It should not be confused with residences/student housing as a 100% factor, i.e. a context where all students stay in university residences. This is just not possible in the context of South Africa. However, our models are geared to serve full-time students who stay on/close to campus and can afford to study on a full-time basis.

What have we learned during this period?

The number one lesson learned is that even old, bureaucratic institutions can adjust faster than we thought possible. And we might possibly be more prepared to take the jump than we thought.

We have seen IT advantages and disadvantages we would not under different circumstances necessarily think about. We have tested our systems and used bandwidth capacity we otherwise would not necessarily have tried.

Some of the other lessons include changes in institutional structures, different (new) ways of consultation, new means of communication, support and, of course, the agility to adjust not only to contextual changes and challenges, but also to new staff and student demands, needs and possibilities.

We have plunged into a context where you must learn/unlearn faster and where decisions taken one week may even change the following week.

These changes have been challenging for both students and staff. It is perhaps the first time in recent history that the professor and the student had to adjust to the same mode of teaching and learning at almost the exact same time.

Soon we will reflect on what we have learned, and it might just be that, in the process, we grab a copy of Aldous Huxley’s famous novel, Brave New World.

International examples?

It is important to realise what plays out in our context might be specific, but it is not always as unique as we might think. It is clear the top universities in the world – the peers of some of SA’s universities – have the same challenges. The adjustment from contact classes to online possibilities has not been easy. Nor has it been ideal. And universities all over the world have dealt with the immediate challenges in similar ways.

It does seem that, up to now, private universities abroad have been hit harder financially with budget cuts implemented or looming. In this regard, not even the prestigious Harvard University in the United States has been left unaffected.

We must still factor in possible financial implications within our own higher education sector.

Differing debates

At a recent online engagement on how Covid-19 related challenges and contingency procedures currently affect universities in South Africa, two discussion points particularly stood out.

The first has to do with transformation on SA campuses at large. In this regard, the fear was shared that current debates and contingency plans will overshadow the need for deep and real institutional change which should have, in effect, addressed some of our historical challenges.

As speakers reminded us, Covid-19 only really highlights the inequalities – it runs parallel to how things play out in the context of our country and further.

The second has to do with those who might have been left behind. Participants clearly expressed the fear that, while some universities celebrate the “success” of an adjustment to online learning – in some circles termed emergency remote learning – this mode will indeed impact on students who do not have access to the infrastructure needed to complete the academic programme as well as students whose home circumstances perhaps do not allow for this mode of learning.

Who is left behind?

The Minister of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Blade Nzimande, has remarked that, in as far as his department can prevent, no student will be left behind. It is, however, quite clear that the infrastructural and connectivity related challenges are huge. And, as in other sectors, the current crisis highlights the inequality in our higher education system.

To emphasise the inequality, it should be noted that the academic year plays out differently at our universities currently; some have only started the second term a couple of weeks ago while others are almost ready to start with semester exams. And other institutions are about to finish exams.

For no student to be left behind, the department will have to make sure that all universities, and thus all students, have access to the necessary infrastructure (not laptops only). And given the local challenges we face in our communities, it is clear extra support will have to be given to, for example, students in rural communities. All of this will be costly. And in a tight economy, additional funds will be scarce, to say the least.

Time will tell whether the DHET, with the support of other national departments and universities, will have the means and the deliberateness to indeed make sure that no student is left behind.

Will the residential university survive?

But the question remains still: will the residential university survive post-Covid-19? And will this challenge call for the end of the residential university as we understand it?

Only time will tell. But what is clear is we have started to test a new model. And the early signs are that in the long run this model, in a variety of versions, might be more affordable and thus perhaps even more sustainable. Although we will see an initial financial burden linked to infrastructure, as time plays out, we might have a limited need for, for instance, student housing on campus as well as the ever-present need for additional classrooms, labs, libraries, etc.

But before we become too eager and too certain, we should consider that we have not yet started to calculate the added learning benefit provided through the residential experience and what the implications for this might be, should we limit the residential experience, as we currently (have to) do.

The appetite for online, blended, and residential programmes in the context of full-time undergraduate programmes up to now has been low. And in South Africa, the so-called learn and earn market is relatively small. Any fixed new model should also take this into account.

With all big shifts in the world, we are more prepared to cross new frontiers. This often moves us forward at a pace faster than we could have imagined. The Covid-19 pandemic might have the same impact on South Africa’s public universities. What remains is for us to weigh up what is possible, what is affordable and what the impact will be on the learning experience and possibilities of our graduates.

Luckily, perhaps now more than ever, these questions are not only limited to South Africa and, as such we form part of a worldwide conversation on issues that might indeed affect us fundamentally. DM


  • Dr Leslie van Rooi is Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation at Stellenbosch University.