Universities around the world are moving to teach online during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. By “the world”, I am of course referring to the “Global North” Universities typically in Europe and America. These institutions, among many other things in the modern world, seem to be the natural centre of our universe, dictating the orbit we ‘developing’ countries follow.
Being amongst the best, competitive and top ranked universities in the world, the University of Cape Town (UCT) was not to be left behind. The latest communication from UCT signals that teaching and learning will begin online in the next term. Two years ago, as part of the selection process for the position to lead the institution, the current vice chancellor delivered a presentation on the topic called “Positioning UCT as a world-class institution: Between a rapidly changing world, and local imperatives for radical transformation”. It is unlikely that anyone thought that COVID-19 will be among the challenges to deal with in a ‘rapidly changing world’. Nonetheless, it presents a definitive test of leadership. Similarly, institutions like UCT are being tested in this way, caught in the seemingly false dichotomy of trying to be ‘world-class’ whilst simultaneously being sensitive and responsive to the needs of our local context.
Some students are eager to graduate. Delaying studies might potentially mean delayed financial independence. And for lower to middle-class families or students studying on loans, it already feels burdensome to be in a long and expensive degree where the investments, that some families already couldn’t really afford, aren’t going to pay off any time soon. However, the long run economic consequences of COVID-19 might lead to significantly lower yields anyway, as the economy might take a while to recover from the pandemic. Moreover, the labour market has increasingly become precarious for recent graduates across various fields. Therefore, everything that was wrong with the world will still exist post-corona and will likely only be worse. The unemployment rate is already in the gutter and along with poverty and inequality rates, will likely be exacerbated.
But even if universities secure laptops and free internet access for remote learning, online learning will likely not work for some students, particularly the most vulnerable from working class neighbourhoods. Many students will have to cope with the demands of caring for their families – some of whom might fall sick – and do other chores and household duties during this period. All the while those same students are trying to study in an environment where they live as backyarders, in a single room shared by whole families and in some cases with the TV and bed in the same room without any space for a study desk. The internet is not going to help a student who needs to find a quiet corner to study in a single room whilst everyone else wants to watch TV or the students living in toxic spaces confronted with regular occurrences of domestic violence. COVID-19 will likely only worsen the existing class, racial and gender inequities between young people and society more generally.
The response to the coronavirus pandemic from the state – particularly the measures announced by the country’s president – have been applauded in upper- and middle-class circles. Yet, they have been found lacking in contexts and situations where physical and social distancing is literally impossible. The economic rescue plans were predominantly geared towards formal businesses and did not meaningfully account for unemployed or casual workers like waiters. Unless you consider that joke of a R150 million solidarity fund as a worthwhile response. Many young people have lost some of these jobs, and many more will lose their jobs in the near future. For young people who just entered the labour market, this is a very precarious time to secure reliable income streams.
It is impossible to have faith in a state which is not only forced, but must face a pandemic, in order to deliver basic goods and services. Or in big business and billionaires who routinely underpay and exploit workers only to dish out six figure donations when it serves their interests. In the vice chancellor candidate presentation, Professor Phakeng referred to a crop of students and employees who belong to “Generation C”. Showing a measure of shrewd insight, she described this generation as having a mindset characterised by putting people and the planet before self-advancement and profit. The line which stood out to me from this characterisation, which might perhaps serve as a timely reminder now, was the description of Generation C as people who “do not believe presidents, CEOs and vice chancellors are credible anymore”.
It stands out because it’s somewhat funny in a tragically ironic or cynically prophetic sense.
Simon Rakei is a writer and works as an independent researcher. His main area of work and current research broadly revolve around political economy, social justice and development issues on the African continent. He publishes a range of reflective essays, creative and research writing on his personal blog-site. In his spare time Simon works on trying to finesse his guitar and mbira playing skills, and he is currently completing a Masters degree with the Sociology department at UCT.