The Covid-19 pandemic, like any other crisis, has brought with it a lot of changes both globally and locally. The Higher Education sector has not been exempt from this change. In fact, it is right in the centre because it forms one of the most affected sectors in our country. Any crisis, no matter how devastating it is, always presents a number of opportunities. It is up to people to choose whether they want to use these opportunities for good or evil. This is where morals and ethics come in. Higher Education students have been presented with a rare opportunity during this Covid-19 pandemic to see the crisis faced by our education system, and the scourge that is corruption in our country.
The purpose of this essay is to show if there was any change in the moral and ethical behaviour of students due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Were students able to rise to the occasion or was there a moral decline? I will be looking at the role played by student leaders and students in general during this pandemic, considering their views on online learning, matters of finance, corruption and who should have been prioritised to return to campus at different universities.
What are morals and ethics? Morals are guiding principles; a moral precept is an idea that is driven by a desire to be good. Ethics refer to specific rules and actions. An ethical code is a set of rules that define permissible, correct behaviour. With the above mentioned definitions, one can say that moral and ethical behaviour is a set of rules and actions guided by principles.
When the lockdown started due to the Covid-19 pandemic, students were forced to abandon their campus lives and contact learning due to the social distancing regulation. This was a decision taken to ensure the safety of students and to prohibit a rapid spread of the virus. The question remained: “How would students continue to do their studies?” Online learning was the only choice, though it came with many challenges. It is no secret that most South Africans do not have access to the internet in their homes, and face network coverage issues due to underdeveloped infrastructure. Besides, students were never prepared for the digitally mediated world. When it comes to online learning, both institutions and students experienced challenges as the pandemic exposed the deep inequalities amongst our country’s universities. Some universities were able to start online learning early, and others struggled because of poor infrastructure, lack of expertise and limited resources. Student leadership asked for all necessary resources to be made available to students to help with online learning. This included data, laptops and that university learning portals be made accessible at no cost. This showed how student leadership was rising to the occasion, instead of becoming part of it and further contributing to the crisis.
According to an article written by Pedro Mzileni, a PhD candidate at Nelson Mandela University, student leadership had valid arguments when they exposed the injustices of the South African communities from which students come. This would make it almost impossible for them to have a fair and just learning experience if teaching was to be switched to online platforms (Mzileni: 2020). Student leadership was correct to make this argument because at the beginning of the year, the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Nzimade, did allude to the nation during his Budget Address to Parliament that more than 50% of students who enrolled for the 2020 Academic Year came from poor households. In other words, the face of Higher Education in South Africa is a poor, black working-class young person who comes from the township and villages of this country (Mzileni: 2020). Students needed student leaders to advocate for them not to stop online learning, but to ensure that it was done correctly, and that resources were provided to students to enable them to efficiently participate. But, poor infrastructure and delivery of devices was not the only problem with online learning. For the students doing African languages, according to Hanekom (2020) a major underlying contributor to limited digital literacy is that of the 11 official languages, only English academic content is widely available online. The South African Higher Education sector has an opportunity to leverage the Covid-19 crisis to transform university learning for the better, making it more accessible and effective into the future (Lukhele:2020). This should be a moral prerogative for the sector if it aims to transform the educational landscape of our country.
The biggest struggle in most students’ lives is finance. More than 50% of the students who enrolled for the 2020 Academic Year came from poor families. One of the critical issues with regard to online learning was affordability, a problem faced by most students. Would they be able to afford online learning? Once again, finance was the main struggle for most students. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the gaps and vulnerability of traditional universities, just like the #FeesMustFall movement in an era that requires more flexibility in their operational system (Cloete: 2020). Students were once again fighting, but they were also welcoming solutions offered because the bigger picture was to rescue the 2020 Academic Year. For me, that revealed a total shift in the thinking of students: they showed maturity and understanding. The Minister of Higher Education told universities to provide data to students and network providers like Telkom, Cell C and MTN said that they would give zero-rated access to universities websites. This was a much welcome development, but the issue of devices remained. The option to be given a laptop by the University, and then forfeiting your book allowance for next year, was not fair because students need that money. You cannot solve one problem by creating another one. Loaning out the laptops was a good idea. But, most students live in crime infested areas, the security of the loaned device could not be guaranteed, and that created another problem.
Student left campuses because it was not safe for them to remain in university accommodation. According to Mzileni (2020), student accommodation is usually a few high-rise buildings accommodating as many as 1000 students in a single building. A Covid-19 infection of one student under such conditions would have caused a complete outbreak by the end of the week. For their safety, they left. But, a huge number of students live in private accommodation. They would still require the use of the university facilities and resources. As the government was easing the regulations of the lockdown, students knew of the possibility of some students returning to campus before the official announcement. For a while, there was a moral dilemma facing students as they had to prioritise themselves first. The “Me first” syndrome was more exposed during the lockdown. It was not until the official announcement of which students would be prioritised to return to campus that most of them started to understand the logic behind decisions. However, this further exposed the issue of infrastructure faced by our universities. If universities were able to accommodate a huge number of students instead of relying on private accommodation, more students would have returned to campuses – especially those who live in areas with network coverage problems. Students need to challenge Higher Education institutions and government, and fight the issue of accommodation. Many problems facing students currently can be prevented if this matter is addressed. It is the moral and ethical duty of our universities to know the living conditions of their students, because this impacts directly on every student’s academic performance.
Never waste a good crisis – these are words by Winston Churchill. The Covid-19 pandemic was not a good crisis, but a crisis nevertheless. Like any other crisis, it provided opportunities too. The Higher Education sector had an opportunity to reinvent itself, and keep up with the times, and blur the lines between the physical and the digital world. Moving beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of poor digital literacy must be corrected. Students were presented with an opportunity to either become part of the solution, or the problem. All this rested on the change in the way we do things, the way we act, advocate and even fight injustice. That is our moral aptitude, our ability to think of others and to make rules for ourselves. There is something exceptionally human about that. A barometer for moral and ethical behaviour among students was created; ironically, one called Covid-19.
Mzileni, P. (2020). How Covid-19 will affect students. The Daily Maverick. 23 April 2020.
Cloete, J. (2020). The Covid-19. 9 April 2020
Hanekom, P. (2020). Covid-19 exposes South Africa’s digital literacy divide. 8 September 2020
Lukhele, S. (2020). The Covid-19 pandemic and higher learning in South Africa. 11 June 2020
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