Stellenbosch University is taking the most progressive approach with COVID-19

After analysing decisions and measures taken by respective institutions, Stellenbosch University (SU) does appear to be the most progressive with the approach it has taken for its students and staff.

Credit: CTV News.

With the Corona Virus now settling into South African society and causing mass hysteria as the number of positive patients increases exponentially, government and its institutions have been taking crucial measures to tackle the spread of the virus in order to protect people from infection. Tertiary institutions have been part of this process and are all currently on “an early recess” as described by Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education.

It is no secret that I have been a critic of Stellenbosch University’s past decisions, culture and structures. However, it is important to give credit where it is due. After analysing decisions and measures taken by respective institutions, Stellenbosch University (SU) does appear to be the most progressive with the approach it has taken for its students and staff.

Despite SU informing its body 12 hours later than other institutions, such as UCT, UJ and Wits, about the measures it will be taken, there have been logical, well-thought out decisions made by SU’s rectorate and its subsequent structures. On the 16th March 2020, Professor Wim de Villiers, the Vice Chancellor of SU, announced that SU would follow the steps and advice given by President Ramaphosa.

It is true that some previous decisions made by the institution faced large criticism from its alumni and graduands. Initially, the institution wanted to cancel the March/April graduation period completely, but after engaging with the SU Student Representative Council (SRC), the rectorate decided to postpone the graduation to November instead.

The institution suspended all contact classes until further notice. However, SU will be launching online classes from the 30th March where students are expected to continue their syllabi. This has been critiqued because not all students have technological devices or access to WiFi. In response to this, the SRC and Centre for Student Communities have been working on plans to counter this challenge by the time online classes begin.

It was regrettable that SU’s Tygerberg Campus, which hosts the Medicine and Health Sciences Faculty, was given “its own prerogative” to determine classes. Thankfully, the Vice Chancellors met with Minister Nzimande and a decision was taken to suspend all contact classes and to start an early recess for all universities and colleges.

There have been a number of developments when it comes to residences and living spaces at institutions. Universities such as Wits and UCT have been strongly criticised for their move to “evict all students within 72 hours” of their respective announcements. SU took a different approach. It has notably encouraged its students to vacate their accommodation and go home to family and friends.

However, it has not forced students to leave. SU has recognised that there are both international and domestic students who cannot simply leave whenever asked to, due to financial and complicated reasons. Thus, they have noted the diversity of its students and want to ensure that all students remain safe and secure given the circumstances.

With that being said, it has taken a strict, radical approach for students who remain in residential spaces in Stellenbosch. Staff from the Centre of Student Communities have alluded to the fact that there have already been arrangements put in place in the event that the national government calls for a national shutdown due to the virus.

For international students at SU who want to leave, the university’s international office is providing support and assistance with allowances, visas and applications. In the event that there is a shut down, students who are still on campus will not be allowed to leave nor will students who have left be allowed to return.

There are predictions that the corona virus (COVID-19) will continue to be a problem in South Africa for a number of months before “life returns normal”. It may potentially result in long-lasting effects for our society and economy, as a whole, and universities are not excluded from this. Universities’ ongoing success thus depends on their flexibility and ability to adapt to crises. Failure in doing this, will result in unforeseen chaos.

Luke Waltham is a BA Law Graduate. He is a BA Honours student and has been an activist for transformation, social justice and human rights. #BTSARMY