We haven’t understood the impact of Covid-19 on education, says Adam Habib

04 August 2020 PSG

Covid-19 is presenting a clear and present danger to education in South Africa; and it’s not just the danger of a delayed - or lost - academic year.

Speaking during a webinar held today as part of PSG’s Think Big series Adam Habib, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, said the real danger is financial. The webinar was hosted by Anet Ahern, CEO of PSG Asset Management.

“As Covid-19 continues to impact the economy, the state doesn’t have money, and if the state doesn’t have money, it’s going to impact on future subsidies for universities. On top of this, people are also losing jobs; and if they don’t have jobs, they can’t pay their children’s fees.

“And if you add subsidies and fees together, that constitutes 90 percent of a university’s income stream. For me, that’s the real challenge we’re facing,” said Habib.

Since the pandemic began, educational institutions across all levels have been forced to shift their academic programmes partly or wholly online. This has made the inequalities in South African society more starkly apparent than ever.

“Universities like Wits, UCT, Stellenbosch, have run the last few years at a modest surplus. We were pilloried for it, but this bit of surplus meant we had funds available to use in a time of serious need,” said Habib.

Other universities such as Fort Hare and Zululand didn’t have that luxury available and the state has had to assist them.

Besides inequality between institutions, universities also have to grapple with inequality within their student bodies.

“At Wits, 85% of our students had access to an electronic device and were able to shift to online learning. However, 15% of our students, or around 5 000, did not have access to any device.”
This was clearly a problem, as the university couldn’t shift to online learning and leave 5 000 students behind.

“Luckily, we have access to a great alumni network, which includes 65 percent of South Africa’s CEOS. By reaching out to these CEOs we were able to source 5 000 laptops for students without devices. No sooner was that problem solved than the next one emerged: students who couldn’t afford devices also couldn’t afford internet connection. Again, through the alumni network, Wits was able to connect students.”

Most institutions don’t have this kind of network to rely on, however. This underpins one of Habib’s main concerns, as he points out that none of us yet understands the full economic impact of Covid-19, and how that will affect education.

As government funds dry up, so will university subsidies. Is there an answer?

According to Habib, what South Africa needs now is for President Ramaphosa to lead with authority.
“The problem in South Africa is that we have a paralysing lack of trust and lack of execution capacity.

“The second problem is cash. There is money sitting in pension funds, but nobody trusts the government to use it. The difference between South Africa and countries like Germany, or Taiwan, is that we have no execution capacity and no trust.”

Could we find what we lack in the private sector?

Habib pointed out that we have seen government incompetence and corruption directly affecting the most vulnerable South Africans during this crisis, as government failed to deliver food parcels to the poor. This despite the fact that South Africa has great logistics capacities in the private sector, said Habib. He continues to argue that a company such as SAB or Imperial could easily have handled the logistics of food parcels, but there is a reluctance to partner with the private sector.

However, Habib believes these partnerships will be our saving grace if the President is able to drown out the noise of those with political agendas masked as ideology and do what needs to be done.

“During a challenge, you have to keep your eye on the social justice goal – and the goal is that we need a more inclusive society – and you need a radical pragmatism to achieve it. You need to operate in the real world that exists,” said Habib.

“President Ramaphosa needs an alliance between state and business and civil society. He wants to chart an inclusion agenda but one that is located in a market economy, and he wants to build a social democracy. I think that’s where most South Africans truly are. He needs to listen to the interests of the 95 percent of people and not the 5 percent who are making the most noise.

“But he has to stand up and lead. He has to stare down the detractors and the proto fascist movements because their agenda is not social democracy, and it is not an inclusive future.”

Covid-19 has brought the ongoing crisis in education and the ongoing crisis of inequality to the fore. According to Habib, our only hope is for the President to do what is hard: to start building the future that 95 percent of South Africans are still hoping for.

Covering the costs of education

Anet Ahern concluded the discussion with a nod to the many parents who are under financial pressure, but still paying fees for their kids’ education.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that paying fees for any level of education in the current circumstances has created considerable strain, and many people have had to dip into their savings as a temporary relief,” said Ahern. For those planning ahead to cover the cost of education in future, she noted that unit trusts are a useful savings vehicle for education-based financial goals.

You can also watch the full discussion here...

Quick Polls


The intention with lockdown was to delay or flatten the Covid-19 infection curve and give both the private and public healthcare sectors time to prepare for the inevitable onslaught. Did the strategy work?


No, the true numbers are not reflected. Almost a quarter of South Africans may already have been infected with Covid-19
It’s too soon to tell. We will likely get a second wave with stringent lockdown regulations in place again
Yes, South Africa bought enough time to make a significant difference. We saved lives and have passed our peak. The worst is over
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