Stellenbosch University
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Record number of qualifications in 2020 despite COVID-19 challenges
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing Division
Published: 04/06/2021

Stellenbosch University (SU) has broken its own record for the most qualifications awarded at the institution in an academic year. The latest figures show that the University conferred 9 234 degrees, certificates and diplomas in 2020 – up from the previous record of 9 133 set in 2019.

“This is a remarkable achievement, considering the difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic," SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers said.

When contact tuition was suspended on university campuses nationwide in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19, SU responded by pivoting to emergency remote teaching, learning and assessment (ERTLA).

“The crisis pressed the fast-forward button on our plans to slowly but surely include more online and hybrid elements in our learning and teaching offering. What we had been planning to do over five years, we had to get done in five weeks," Prof De Villiers explained.

“It was a tremendous team effort. Everyone pulled their weight – from lecturers who had to repackage their courses, and students who had to get used to exclusively online class attendance and assessments, to overloaded ICT systems that had to be upgraded in record time."

“SU procured more than 1 700 laptops, which were subsequently made available on a loan basis to students who needed them. Considering we were in a hard lockdown, we obtained special permission for courier services to deliver the laptops to addresses across the country. The University provided mobile data to students to ensure they would have access to the internet. And we created a dedicated support site to help students with various aspects of the new, online mode of learning and teaching."

“Assessments were conducted mostly online for the first time in SU's history. Faculties and departments, lecturers and support divisions made an extraordinary effort in a very short space of time to ensure that exams could proceed."

All of this paid off when the University held a first set of graduation ceremonies for the academic year in December 2020, and a second set in March/April 2021. While, initially, the number of qualifications awarded was slightly less than in 2019, it became apparent that some master's and doctoral students who had been on a trajectory to graduate just did not manage to complete their research in time due to the impact of COVID-19. They could, for instance, not do field research during the stricter levels of lockdown.

To accommodate these candidates, the submission deadline for their theses and dissertations was extended to 1 March 2021. Their faculties had their research examined, and submitted the results by 14 May. Various units of the University then collaborated to ensure that proper governance processes were followed to have the candidates' results approved – first by faculty boards, and then by the Executive Committee of Senate on 25 May 2021.

Thanks to this concession, an additional 105 master's and 31 doctoral degrees could be included in SU's final Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) report for 2020 to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The graduates will be afforded the opportunity to attend the graduation ceremonies in December 2021 (COVID-19 permitting).

The additional qualifications take SU's tally for master's and doctoral degrees for the 2020 academic year to 1 316 and 302 respectively, and the overall number of qualifications conferred to 9 234. Of these, 4 769 were at undergraduate and 4 465 at postgraduate level.

“These are some of the highest figures of all universities in South Africa. Through these qualifications, we are proud to be making a valuable contribution to the development of our country, our continent and the rest of the world," Prof De Villiers said.

An important part of the high level of student success achieved at SU in 2020 was the extensive support programme rolled out behind the scenes. This not only enabled the initial rapid switch to online learning and teaching, but also sustained the new approach for the rest of the academic year.

With financial support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust and the Harry Crossley Foundation, SU was able to expand its capacity to develop additional multimedia educational material and offer its students more virtual academic tutoring, mentoring, psychosocial support and technical assistance.

A dedicated support site was created to assist lecturers with the switch to ERTLA, and daily webinars were well attended.

Additional tutoring was offered to 22 534 students, and a special short course was developed to improve tutors' skills. Tutors reported that the extra time spent with students had relieved the pressure on lecturers and facilitated enhanced teaching and learning, while students also attested to the benefits of the additional support.

The SU Language Centre delivered over 1 250 podcast translations to convert English learning material into Afrikaans in support of multilingualism. The Centre also hosted academic skills webinars, produced writing skills videos, provided online reading and writing support, as well as real-time interpreting for deaf students.

“Congratulations to everyone concerned. These achievements speak volumes for SU's ability to be agile in the face of adversity, as well as for the can-do attitude of our staff and students," Prof De Villiers said.