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The Covid-crisis could lead to large-scale university retrenchments

To create a new economy, a new society, you cannot underfund universities: Prof Tawana Kupe from the University of Pretoria

NOMPU SIZIBA: The Covid-19 pandemic has had serious impacts on all manner of sectors. Our focus today is the tertiary education sector. During the pandemic, universities had to suddenly go to wholesale e-learning while, for poorer students, this will have created a lot of complications as many won’t have had the basic tools to learn off the university site, with issues around basic nutrition also becoming a bigger problem. And because universities reside within economies, at a broader level questions now arise about how they will be funded, whether the private-sector contributions for the work of universities will be forthcoming, given the financial impacts and so many more issues. Well, someone who’s been pondering the future of universities is Professor Tawana Kupe. He’s the vice-chancellor at the University of Pretoria. Thanks very much, Professor Kupe, for joining us. It’s been a tough time for the education sector right across the board, but perhaps, in reflection on the last six months, you can paint a picture in terms of the impacts that have been felt in the tertiary space and where you have specific examples at the University of Pretoria itself.

TAWANA KUPE: Yes. Obviously I think the Lockdown has had a huge impact on our ability to provide direct face-to-face, or what is called “contact” learning. And also the ability for our
staff to do some forms of research, fieldwork, for example, or a research unit to do in the laboratory with the assistance and participation of post-graduate students. So that was it. Especially at the University of Pretoria, that was a big knock in the sense that we practise an innovative form of teaching and learning we call “hybrid” or “blended” teaching and learning.
The way that it works is with the basis that, before students come to class, they do some online preparation, if you like. That might include even quizzes which are preparatory to the contact class. Then, in classes where the lecturer or the professor might use online resources post their class – we call it the “consolidate version”. So we call it the consolidate thing after class, and then go online as well, and you must you might submit your assignment assessment online. So now we’re forced to do just online. That’s not our prepared mode, because learning is best done if it’s hybrid, not just contact only. This the 21st century this has moved on, digital works
also. But also not a hundred percent online, especially for undergraduate students. Remember that …… goes to when the lockdown knocked us down. There have only been six or seven …… university from matric. So they were denied that experience through …… universities, especially those who were in res as well. So for many students its final year it was quite traumatic and stressful that you might not finish the year. However, the good news is that we recovered fairly well, and relatively well. Because our students have experience of learning on their ….. …… in blended or hybrid mode. When we went 100% it was not all ….. strenuous and difficult. And for those students who didn’t have laptops or internet-connected devices, that was a challenge. We moved …… to mobilise in …… and lend money to buy their …… laptops.

NOMPU SIZIBA: And so nobody was left behind.

TAWANA KUPE: Yes, exactly. Our purpose was for no student to be left behind, lest there be …… academic line, …… the academic year, and just save lives as well. You could just clear …… No, no, no, no. Just try and duck around this Covid thing because it was serious; infections were rising in that terrible phase. But see, there were students who couldn’t access, even if I give them a laptop or whatever.
There’s no connectivity to where they live …… and the home environment is not conducive. So, while we teach from the beginning, is we carry some students behind, where they could be safe in terms of …… regulations if their home environments were not good because then they could connect easily. That included some international students. But we sent my hard-copy materials to the students who could not connect …… to two years of connectivity. And we followed up with telephone tutoring. So the internal line was …… and I managed to do telephone tutoring. Where levels went down, we were able to bring some students back, open the labs under strict regulations, and so on and so forth.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It sounds like you were very resourceful in the period but, just in terms of going forward, in terms of the bigger picture, the impact that it’s had, we know that the focus is under pressure, we know that they’re going to be cutting resources from various sections – education, the social–

TAWANA KUPE: Money has already been cut. We had all this buying of computers and stuff, and sometimes providing data to students, not so much as the University of Pretoria. We have an IT system that allows staff and students to go online without having to have data, except in periods when the traffic is high and also you are kicked out for some reason when you are doing assessments. For those people we provided data.
But all of these were unbudgeted expenses, which meant that as a matter of fact now we are using money which is not meant for that purpose. Then also, when Minister Mboweni made his special budget, there was a cut to the budgets of the universities or the higher education sector. In fact, also for all of us, the government and universities, to have enough money for PPE, sanitisers, sanitisation of spaces that were being
used, and so on. So, yes, if you compare what we were at the beginning of the year, our budgets are not what they should be because they are being diverted to other purposes. When we cut, also it will have an impact going forward.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That’s right. It’s going to be very tricky, because obviously you need to continue with your research work. You’re going to continue having more stress and pressure in terms of the number of students that want to come into the university. And then, of course, what about the resources in terms of the human capital, the lecturers? Do you envisage a situation where people may have to lose their jobs, simply because there aren’t enough resources for them?
And what impact will that have on things like your educational programmes and the quality

TAWANA KUPE: At this moment I don’t think so. The problem, of course, just to finish the resource constraint issue, is students and parents not being able to pay our fees. So we can see student debt rising. However, all of these things, they are in a paper I did with (co-authored) with one of my
colleagues, …… for the university sector – which they accepted and published as “Uncertain time” – is that we had four scenarios. The worst scenario was the scenario you are now talking about, retrenchment. That is possible if the economy becomes a total wasteland. And that, of course, is leading to the effect that right now, after Level 3, from Level 3 to Level 1 today, the economy is being opened up gradually. It won’t recover immediately, but that we also mitigate against extreme retrenchment …… So all of these things are tied together. But, of course, we are also going to give up from university to university. What if financial status …… was before? What is mixed …… student fees? What is …… if any exist, and the capability of its own kind of students to be able to pay. And also, of course, the extent of that main cut. But our system is to retrench, especially academic or even others, because as you so rightly say, for the country to recover it needs the human resources that universities produce. Did you see what happened during Covid? The …… with Covid-related direct action, using 3D PCP …… materials. Some universities …… we did that quite devoted to people. We also partnered with the private sector to assist communities to deal with Covid. So the information in management and also producing some other forms of PPE that are not regulated. Those universities produced sanitisers, they were manufacturing sanitisers and giving to people. So, for the economy to resurrect and grow, and for us to create a new economy, a new society, as
the President says, you cannot, therefore, underfund universities going forward, which would be cutting the very legs that will make you rise, lift and run.

NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s going to be a tricky one, Just in conclusion, Prof, in terms of the quality of the degrees and postgraduate courses that you’ve been running this year, are you confident that the quality is as good as it would have been, but for Covid?

TAWANA KUPE: I think, especially for the University of Pretoria, we were doing quite …… quality checks along the way. So, for example, people are saying things like “If you start doing exams or assessments online, they will copy”. That is possible, yes, with the software we are using to do that. But also how you …… the questions ……. if we are copying easily if you like, because online teaching is not just dumping stuff online. It’s actually a methodology and wording which it ….. Of course, this is also going to differ from university to university, to be fake. If you go to a university where people are not used to online learning and online teaching, or even to our university where some lecturer and the students were struggling, that might impact also on our …… quality. But I wouldn’t say that therefore quality is wholly negative. Let me give me a very interesting example. Do you know that at UP when most students wrote exams, when we used to do them in large halls where people were taking them, we thought fewer
people might say “I’m not ready, I have not yet had enough classes, I can’t take the exam, and I’m going to drop my courses” – that That is not what happened.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Tawana Kupe, the vice-chancellor at the University of Pretoria.



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There are far too many students at universities who never should have been there. Universities are also churning out useless degrees in rubbish like so-called political science. The money would be far better spent training welders or plumbers than BA Braaivleis graduates.

Concur. Universities, globally, are sellers of degrees to all who can afford to pay, scholarships, loans etc.,are fully fledged capitalist businesses with profit motives. Most of the degrees, as you allude, are useless in real world and a practical study in plumbing carpentry electrician motor mechanic panel beater bricklayer lawnmower painter might be more useful.

Whilst I agree with you, I must add that some professions i.e teaching medicine engineering require tertiary study and these areas must be funded – 100%.

Re retrenchments, I request universities to get rid of all dead wood before retrenching a younger person who has vigour and energy.

P.S Have you had chance to study the financials of say UCT U$. These guys play poor and always claim how valuable they are. They sit on billions of ZAR. Should you pool the cash of all uni’s in Saffa you will be able to repay Eksdom’s debt (and get some small change).

End of comments.





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