Stay up to date!

Managing a crisis

By Charlene Stanley

Prof Petersen

Prof Francis Petersen
Photo: Sonia Small

Pandemics are not completely predictable or controllable. But systems designed to respond to them, are. Steering the carefully considered UFS response to COVID-19, is a man who approaches the task with the passion of a committed leader with extensive experience in scenario planning and systems thinking in both higher education and industry.

Timely action

Early reaction and a sustained focus on the period after the pandemic, characterised the university’s response action. A UFS Coronavirus (COVID-19/SARS-COV-2) Task Team was already formed at the beginning of March 2020 to monitor the situation closely, to advise the university’s executive management and to share critical information as it became available.

As Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Francis Pertersen oversaw all response efforts.

“A central figure in our operations has been Prof Felicity Burt, who holds a SARChI Research Chair in vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, and who chairs the UFS Coronavirus (COVID-19/SARS-COV-2) Task Team. It was essential that all our actions and decisions be underscored by good, relevant science,” he says.

Soon after South Africa reported its ‘patient zero’ on 5 March 2020, Prof Petersen formed the Special Executive Group (SEG). Acting as the university’s COVID-19 nerve centre, the SEG focuses on various aspects of the university’s operations and assists with forecasting and planning the impact of the pandemic on the institution and the continuation of the academic programme in 2020.  The group has seven task teams: science, teaching and learning, staff, operations, staff and student reintegration, finance, and future thinking.

To mitigate the possible local impact of the pandemic, the academic programme was suspended from 17 March 2020. This included the cancellation of graduation ceremonies scheduled to take place on the campuses in April, May, and June 2020, as well as open days and all official university events. Precautionary measures were taken; students had to vacate residences by 20 March 2020 and a moratorium was placed on all international travel. After an initial online transition and orientation period, students started with online learning from 4 May 2020.


“Our first priority was the health, safety, and well-being of our staff and students. The second priority was to complete the 2020 academic year. And the third priority was to structure all our response efforts in a socially just manner, where no student would be left behind,” explains Prof Petersen.

The move to online teaching was preceded by an intense planning phase during which top management sometimes slept very little. Laptops had to be procured, data arranged, communication lines established.

During the first week of the execution phase, data analytics were used to make sure that the system was running smoothly and to identify vulnerable students who were not accessing online facilities for some reason.

“We procured more than 3 500 laptops for these students. We had to move fast, as many other learning institutions were on the same mission!” says Prof Petersen.

Getting these devices to students proved to be another challenge, as couriers had stopped operating during the national lockdown. The university, through Universities South Africa, had to engage with the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation to get them delivered as an essential service.

Despite the time pressure, it was important that nothing should be done haphazardly. A precise methodology was developed and implemented for the allocation of laptops.

Clear communication was a major priority and stakeholders such as unions, student leadership, staff, and alumni were constantly kept involved and informed.

“When it came to university matters, we did not want any anxiety, uncertainty or confusion. We also made it clear that there would be no job losses in 2020,” explains Prof Petersen.

Higher education landscape after the pandemic

“As we re-integrate, there will be a strong focus on hygiene and social distancing, and it is important that staff and students take this responsibility on themselves. We will also be looking at ways to sustain the effective multi-disciplinary co-operation we achieved during the lockdown period. And it will become increasingly important to look at flexible HR models, where a certain portion of staff members can work from home.”

He believes the biggest challenge for higher education revealed by the pandemic, is digital inequality.

“It is in essence a social issue that requires a concerted collaborative effort from government, the private sector, and higher learning institutions to address urgently.”

Meanwhile, he looks forward to returning to the Bloemfontein Campus.

“I cannot wait to see the recent improvements around the Main Building and elsewhere. And I miss the vibrancy of the students,” says Prof Petersen.

Ambassador Jabu Mbalula, from UFS to Romania

Dr van Staden
Digitisation of Teaching and Learning

Hope is a never-ending story

Science comes together against COVID-19

Our Campuses Video

We use cookies to make interactions with our websites and services easy and meaningful, to better understand how they are used and to tailor advertising. You can read more and make your cookie choices here. By continuing to use this site you are giving us your consent to do this.