Editorial note: The initial version of this story did not include a response from Wits University, which SABC News has subsequently received and incorporated.

Wits University has disputed claims that many of its students have deregistered since the advent of remote learning amid the national state of disaster. Instead, it’s of the view that a significant number is committed and adjusting well to online lessons.

“Wits has extracted the data and our analysis shows that less than 0.3% (less than 1%) of the total student population has deregistered since the start of the 2020 academic year. These stats are much lower than at the same time in 2019.

“The majority of the deregistrations in 2020 took place before mid-March. Between 23 March and 18 May 2019, Wits received 208 requests for deregistrations compared to 118 in 2020 for the same period,” says Buhle Zuma, Senior Communications Officer at Wits University.

She has attributed deregistrations to reasons other than online learning. Among those are personal circumstances, health challenges and transfers to different institutions.

“The University wishes to emphasise that alternative plans have been put in place to assist those students who may have had difficulty with online learning. These will commence once contact classes resume,” says Zuma.

Wits believes that the issue of deregistration has been politicised and that there is a deliberate intention to mislead the public.

This after the university’s Student Representative Council (SRC) told SABC  News that 15% of students have been unable to access the online learning system, which they say has led to many of them opting to deregister.

The SRC says it received numerous calls from students asking to deregister because they are struggling to cope with online learning and the workload, as some of their environments are not conducive to learning.

While institutions have provided some students with laptops and partnered with network providers to ensure the continuity in learning, students have raised issues such as connectivity as an obstacle to completing their studies.

Secretary General of the SRC at Wits, Katie Morgets, says the calls received by the student body are from students who are often marginalised and are unable to cope with the current workload.

Morgets says, “A lot of students are complaining about the amount in terms of the workload that they have been receiving from the university – premised on the notion that under the circumstances, this situation is different. We find ourselves in varying living conditions, we find ourselves plagued by very different socio-economic circumstances…”

“Another thing that we have found is that even though the university has empowered students with data, there are some students who live in remote areas where there is inadequate access to proper network connection. thus they are not able to actively partake in the online sessions. It has led to a rise in anxiety, a rise in mental health issues to a point where students feel that maybe the best option for them is to deregister from the institution and to try at a later stage…” added Morgets.

The video below explains how Wits University online learning works:

Deregistration discouraged

CEO of Universities South Africa Ahmed Bawa says it is not all bleak and has encouraged students to remain in the system. He says they will have an opportunity to complete the academic year.

Bawa says, “I certainly don’t think that students should deregister because even if students are having huge difficulties with online learning, the universities have all committed themselves to re-establishing the academic year, reconstituting the academic year and depending on what the President says in the next few days with regard to the lockdown and so on, it’s quite possible that the phased re-introduction of students onto our campuses will begin quite soon…”

“From my point of view, at least, I think the critical issue is for students to stay in the system because they will all have a chance to complete the academic year,” Bawa added.

Students from institutions across the country have been learning through online platforms due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown for two months.

Meanwhile, reports about cheating during online assessments by students at the institution have also surfaced with Wits allegedly planning to take action against such conduct.

Wits University has also advised students who may be struggling to cope, to consult their lecturers and use internal counselling structures before considering deregistration.

 

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