23 April 2020 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Sonia Small

The COVID-19 pandemic has created profound disruptions in our economy and society.  Due to the challenges of this pandemic, most universities have decided to move from face-to-face classes to online teaching (more accurately defined as emergency remote teaching and learning) so as to complete the 2020 academic year, and to prevent the spread of the virus.

Online learning vs emergency teaching and learning
Online learning is the result of careful instructional design and planning, using a systematic model for design and development.  With remote emergency teaching and learning, this careful design process is absent.  Careful planning for online learning includes not just identifying the content to be covered, but also how to support the type of interactions that are important to the learning process.  Planning, preparation, and development time for a fully online university course typically takes six to nine months before the course is delivered.

Emergency teaching and learning is a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternative delivery mode due to crisis conditions.  Hence, one cannot equate emergency remote teaching and learning with online learning, nor should one compare emergency remote teaching and learning with face-to-face teaching. What is crucial is the quality of the mode of delivery, and although assessment methodologies will differ between face-to-face teaching and remote teaching and learning, the quality of the learning outcomes should be comparable.

Funding to universities 
The financial model used in a South African (residential) university consists of three main income sources: (i) the state or government through a subsidy (the so-called ‘block grant’), (ii) tuition fees, and (iii) third-stream income (which is mainly a cost-recovery component from contract research, donations, and interest on university investments). The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) contributes to the tuition fees through a Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Bursary Scheme, providing fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working-class South Africans (recipients will typically be students from households with a combined income less than R350 k per annum).  

The negative impact of COVID-19 on the income drivers of the university can, and probably will, be severe.  Although the subsidy from the state or government can be ‘protected’ for a cycle of two to three years through the National Treasury, the pressure on income derived from tuition fees (that component which is not funded through NSFAS) will be increasing, as households would have been affected by the nationwide lockdown and with the economy in deep recession, a significant number of jobs would have been lost. The economic downturn, due to both COVID19 and a sovereign downgrade by all rating agencies, has already negatively impacted local financial markets as well as the global economy. The multiplier effect of this would be that the value of investments and endowments decreases (at the time of writing the JSE was still 20% down compared to the previous year), and philanthropic organisations and foundations will most probably reduce or even terminate ‘givings’ to universities.

Industry, private sector, and commerce will re-assess their funding to universities, whether for research or bursary support.  Overall, it is possible that the income sources for universities can be affected negatively in the short term, but it will definitely have longer-term implications on the financial sustainability of universities.  In this regard, it would be important for universities to perform scenario planning on the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the financial position of the university, and to adjust their strategic plans accordingly.

By Prof Francis Petersen is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

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