The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology and the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sport, Arts and Culture held a joint meeting with the Department of Higher Education to receive an update on how institutions higher education intended to save the academic year.

The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, called on committee members to support the call from the departments of Basic and Higher Education for more radio frequency spectrum to be made available for education. The more radio bandwidth made available by government, the more capacity mobile communication operators with have to connect new users and at faster speeds. The committees also received briefings on how the Department of Science and Technology has assisted Higher Education during the COVID-19 period.

“The committees should be preoccupied with how releasing new spectrum will assist the sector and should support our call. We will engage Minister Angie Motshekga on the matter; we need a dedicated spectrum to education in the country,” Dr Nzimande said.

The primary task for the Department of Higher Education is saving the academic year, he continued. Communication around the matter will now increase, starting with a joint press conference on Friday. However, he flagged that it is difficult to plan as the issues around COVID-19 are complex and unpredictable.

Dr Nzimande noted that South Africa is dealing with three interlinked crises: Covid-19, the economic crisis and social distress in many households. A government meeting with all stakeholders ahead of the lockdown emphasised that it was important to work together, as COVID-19 exacerbated already existing inequalities.

Minister Nzimande revealed that the department is working to mobilise resources, including an investigation into the challenge with levy collection for the sector education and training authorities; interacting with mobile network operators on zero-rating data; and free access to educational websites.

Members of the committees welcomed the presentation and asked questions about various challenges in the higher education sector, including students living in campus residences during the lockdown, exam timetables, mobile data, revision of exams papers and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

The Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology, Mr Philly Mapulane, asked how institutions were assisting students with online learning. The department said it is working hard to ensure that students have the learning materials they need for online learning.

Mr Mapulane said the inequalities in the system meant the department needed to work hard to ensure all students succeed this year. “Some institutions could support students for online learning, including those that have no capacity. We could not allow a situation where inequalities from the era of apartheid are perpetuated through this online learning,” added Mr Mapulane.

Sibongile Mputi
21 April 2020