The 2020-2021 Academic Year: What Should our Students Expect?

As graduate employers who both employ and, in many instances, fund students, we felt it would be a valuable exercise to gain deeper insight into how our Universities are dealing with the remainder of the 2020 academic year as well as how they are intending to approach 2021.  In the interests of time we were not able to gather detailed information from all of our Universities – however, having gained detailed feedback from the University of the Witwatersrand (I chatted in depth to Jerome September, Dean of Student Affairs)  and the University of Cape Town’s spokesman, Elijah Moholola, we can gain an understanding of how our Institutions are adapting.  Below are the questions we posed, together with their summarised responses.

Have all students returned to campus now that we are at lockdown Level One?  How is the University delivering teaching and learning now that all students are back on campus?  Have some students stayed away and, if so, are they continuing with online learning?

Both Wits and UCT have committed to completing the 2020 academic year online, with a phased approach to bringing students back on campus, as required.  Students who are required, due to the nature of their course, to complete sit-down examinations (for example, Medicine, Engineering and the Performing Arts), will be required to do so within the boundaries of strict health and safety regulations.

Where necessary, students are allowed access to facilities such as libraries, laboratories, and study facilities, again, with strict health and safety protocols.

Students have been allowed back into campus residences based on single occupancy rooms with decisions in this regard prioritised based on a student vulnerability assessment – so, for example, preference has been given based on difficult home circumstances, socio-economic disadvantage or particular barriers to academic progress.

Will all students have the opportunity to complete the 2020 academic year irrespective of whether they are online or on campus?

The answer, in both cases, is “absolutely!”

How will final assessments be conducted and evaluated – will there be dual options i.e. on campus and online?

A limited number of courses will be examined on campus, with the bulk of courses being examined online.  Where applicable, timed assessments and continuous assessments will also be considered.

Students are writing exams until late in December, when are results likely to be available and when will supps be written/finalised?

Wits students will complete their year-end assessments between October and mid-December, with supplementary examinations written in January 2021.  In the case of UCT, examinations will end on the 9th of December, with provisional results due by the 23rd of December and final approval of results will be released by mid-January 2021, followed by supplementary examinations where required.

For students due to graduate at the end of 2020, what will this look like?  By when will they know they have passed/graduated and how should employers plan for this if they have offered employment to graduating students?

UCT students who complete their qualification in 2020 will graduate in July 2021. Once final results are confirmed by mid-January 2021, students will receive a letter as well as a formal transcript indicating that they have qualified, and they will be in a position to undertake employment opportunities. Wits results will be available in early December with special graduation ceremonies for a select number of programmes like  health sciences who are required to take the Hippocratic oath. This is scheduled for mid-December. Other students who have qualified will be assisted with letters and their transcripts confirming that they have qualified.

How are applications/admissions for 2021 looking?  What are your plans for the commencement of the 2021 academic year, given that Grade 12 results will only be available by the 3rd week in January?

Wits closed their 2021 applications a week ago so don’t have accurate stats available, however, they have confirmed that applications received are on a par with other years.  In the case of UCT, both undergraduate and post-graduate applications for 2021 are up on previous years.

In terms of 2021, the NSC results will be available on 23 February 2021 and UCT’s academic year will commence on 15 March 2021.  In the case of Wits, post-graduate students will commence in the second week of February 2021, with first year and undergraduate students commencing the academic year at the beginning of March 2021.

Is the University expecting to return to normal teaching when the 2021 academic year commences?  If not, what will the approach be?

Wits is preparing for some contact teaching in 2021 but is anticipating a blended approach to teaching and learning going forward.  Teaching methods will be adjusted, as necessary, should health and safety regulations be altered.  UCT is adopting a similar approach.  The UCT executive will propose to Senate that the first semester of 2021 be conducted online.

How will 2021 students be oriented?

Wits will be adapting their orientation for online purposes and will add various components to their pre-admission modules.  UCT are doing the same, with emphasis on ensuring that students become familiarised with the changed environment, including increased use of online service and functions.

Do you anticipate having to adjust the University’s fee structure, going forward (e.g. to cater for a blended approach to learning and/or fewer students in residence)?

The Universities have adopted a national approach to rebates – so, for example, students will only be charged for the number of days they spent in residence in 2020 and other fee adjustments have been made with respect to things like club memberships, on campus parking and so on.

There is no anticipated fee adjustment at this stage, though interest costs have been waived.  Fees for tuition and residence for 2021 will be due as normal and the Universities are working closely with NSFAS in this regard.

What if we have a “second wave” and return to more stringent lockdown conditions?  What will the University do?

Both Institutions indicated that they are far better prepared, should there be a second wave or return to stricter lockdown measures.  They are more geared to operate remotely and would be able to follow whatever national guidelines were to dictate.

What, if any, permanent changes will the University make because of Covid-19 e.g. ensuring that all students own a laptop and have access to data?

Both Universities will ensure that students have laptops from 2021 and will consolidate the lessons learnt about teaching and learning during the forced lockdown to inform their approach going forward.  Access to technology will be prioritised, a blended approach to learning is anticipated and increased emphasis will be placed on health and safety protocols.

What steps is the University taking to cope with a potential increase in mental health/wellbeing issues?  How are students being supported, given social distancing etc. challenges?

Wits University were quickly able to adapt their counselling services to an online format using Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp.  The University’s learning management system was also used to gain insight into which students were engaging with online learning.  Low or non-engagement was flagged, and students were contacted directly to assess any issues.  A mental health app was also launched which allows students 24/7 access to a counsellor and which was used to run support campaigns.  A new Psychiatric service was also introduced.  Jerome indicated that students have showed signs of increased anxiety but that demand for support has mirrored normal peaks around exam time, for example.

UCT also offer several support alternatives for students through their Student Wellness Services (SWS).  Peer counsellors provide support in different languages with four key focus areas: counselling, health and wellness, socio-economic adjustment, and academic support.  Common topics include relationship or family issues, academic concerns, adjustment difficulties, substance abuse and anxiety or depression.  Students are supported through online counselling sessions and peer counselling that offers coping skills, helpful resources and information.


The insight provided by both Wits and UCT have provided tremendous reassurance that students are in good hands and that our Universities have adapted quickly to the circumstances thrown at them in 2020.  As highlighted by Jerome, Covid-19 has resulted in the University community having to pull together and create communities of support for students more than has ever been the case before.  This can only be a good thing for all of us.  As Employers, we urge you to continue to support our academic colleagues and to recognize the value of evaluating students beyond just their academic results – dig a little deeper to reveal the nuances of what they have learned in overcoming the challenges of 2020.