The COVID-19 health crisis and inequalities in post-school education in South Africa

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic led South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to declare a national state of disaster on Sunday, 15 March 2020. In response to the announcement, tertiary education institutions and student residences around the country closed in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. These institutions were required to come up with remote teaching and learning solutions in a relatively short period of time. While virtual classes on personal tablets may have become the global norm, many South African students are likely to lack access to internet and data connectivity, and may rely on shared or mobile devices off which to learn. In addition, glaring structural inequalities plague a multitude of socio-economic factors in South Africa. These factors shape the household environment in which many students find themselves, and in which they have been expected to learn new academic material. Household access to electricity, a stable internet connection and a suitable device off which to learn, will dictate the quality of students’ remote learning – if that can take place at all. Subsequently, the quality of remote learning is likely to impact student outcomes and the composition of the student body in the tertiary education system.

While COVID-19 has affected all levels of education in South Africa, our research focuses on post-school education. Typically, on-campus learning and living presents a way – albeit imperfect – of equalising access to resources for students from various backgrounds. This is not possible under remote learning. Therefore, existing household inequalities are likely to further disadvantage students in this time.

Research questions

  • What do measures of student-body household and community characteristics at different institutions tell us about within and between institution inequalities in the post-school education system; and how are these important in designing remote teaching and learning solutions?
  • What has been the impact of remote learning during COVID-19 on student outcomes, and are students on financial aid disproportionately affected? How does this vary for students attending different institutions?
  • How did the shift to remote learning during students’ final year of secondary school disrupt the composition of students applying to and enrolling in tertiary education institutions in the subsequent academic year(s)?

This project is funded by the Spencer foundation, August 2020-July 2023.