31 August 2020

Statement by Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor

The university’s executive management is aware of the statement on COVID-19 alert Level 2 measures in the post-school education and training sector delivered by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, on 26 August 2020.

During the statement, Dr Nzimande indicated that the University of the Free State (UFS) is one of six universities that is deemed to be at medium risk of not completing the academic year. The statement was surprising and disappointing, since through an engagement between the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the UFS almost a week ago to understand the university’s approach to the completion of the 2020 academic year, as well as the interpretation of specific information provided by the university in its COVID-19 Responsiveness Multi-modal Teaching and Learning Programme to the DHET, the DHET was clear that the UFS was not at a medium risk, but indeed at a low to very low risk of not completing the academic year.

Since the statement by Dr Nzimande, I received a letter from the Deputy Director-General: University Education at the DHET, Dr Di Parker on 28 August 2020 confirming that the university’s risk rating has been adjusted to a low risk rating. The DHET also recognised the good work done by the UFS towards successful completion of the academic year. 

Let me explain why the DHET delegation expressed its opinion that the UFS was at a low to very low risk of not completing the academic year. The UFS has taken an evidence-based approach to managing the impact of the pandemic. Within the first weeks of the national lockdown, the Special Executive Group (SEG) was formed, which meets weekly to discuss various aspects of the institution’s operations and to forecast and plan the impact of the pandemic. As the university’s COVID-19 nerve centre, the SEG has several task teams, one of which is the Teaching and Learning Management Group (TLMG).

The core function of the TLMG was to ensure that teaching and learning could continue to help staff and students to successfully complete the academic year. The first step in the evidence-based response was to conduct a survey among UFS students to assess their access to devices and data. Altogether 13 500 students responded to the survey. The results showed that 92% of students had an internet-enabled device, 70% could get access to the internet off campus, and 56% had access to a laptop.

Based on this evidence, we immediately initiated the purchase of 3 500 laptops to be distributed to NSFAS- and Funza Lushaka-funded students and students with disabilities. In addition, the Keep Calm, #UFSLearnOn, and #UFSTeachOn campaigns have been launched. These campaigns are aimed at creating the best possible support for academic staff and students, respectively by adapting existing support and practices most suited to an emergency remote-learning environment. The departure point of both campaigns was to design a response for the constrained environments of our students.  

The #UFSLearnOn campaign for students creates materials that students can download on their cellphones and that would provide them with skills and ideas on how to get connected and create an environment where they could study at home. The #UFSLearnOn website has been viewed by 77 000 students to date; the resources were shared with other universities to support a collaborative approach to addressing the COVID-19 challenge. In addition, 177 000 Facebook users have been reached by #UFSLearnOn materials.

The #UFSTeachOn campaign focused on supporting staff to transform their materials and teaching approach to a new reality. Altogether 1 409 staff members attended training sessions, which all ran overtime due to the commitment of staff to create the best possible response. Both the #UFSLearnOn and #UFSTeachOn campaigns are continuing, with an overwhelmingly positive response from our staff and students. 

However, these campaigns would become two of the 16 strategies the university has developed to manage the risks created by the pandemic. Creating responses is, however, not enough – evidence is needed to make a difference. Therefore, the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) was tasked with creating a monitoring system using data analytics. To date, 26 reports have served at the weekly TLMG meetings. The reports monitor the number of staff and students on the Learning Management System, how much time they are spending on learning, and whether they are completing assessments. 

During the peak of the first semester, 90% of students were supported online by academic and support staff. The average performance of students per faculty per campus has been monitored. The use of data analytics allowed us to identify students who were not connecting, as part of the No Student Left Behind initiative. Out of the 41 000 students at the UFS, 989 students were identified who had not connected with learning. These students were contacted individually and to date, 80% of these students have been helped to connect. Additional plans are being developed to support the other 20% to plan for the successful continuation of their studies. The success of our approach is not only borne out by quantitative evidence, but also by qualitative feedback such as the following quote received by an academic adviser on 24 August 2020:

“Thank you so much [advisor’s name]; if it wasn't for you, I would have dropped out, deregistered, or even committed suicide during this pandemic. I want to say that I have passed all my modules with distinctions, all thanks to you. After all the difficulty of learning I have experienced during this period. Please continue your great work to others (you were truly meant for this job), and God bless you.”

There are hundreds more quotations like these that testify to the inspiring efforts of our students and staff to finish the academic year successfully with very low risk. 

The UFS will continue with its project management and risk-adjusted management approach and is fully committed to ensure that no student is left behind and that the 2020 academic year is successfully completed.

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