Virtual staff assembly: difficult year provides useful lessons

15 October 2020 | Story Penny Haw. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 10 min.
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng thanked staff for the work they’re doing to keep UCT operational during these unprecedented times.
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng thanked staff for the work they’re doing to keep UCT operational during these unprecedented times.

While COVID-19 was an unwelcome and difficult surprise for everyone, it has revealed how adaptable, innovative and resilient the University of Cape Town (UCT) community is. This according to University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who was speaking at a special online staff assembly held on 13 October.  

“We could not have made it this far without every individual doing what they could to keep the academic project going forward. This includes the hard work of staff in our faculties, the many colleagues in our support and administrative departments and those staff who continued to provide essential services during the different stages of lockdown.”

Health experts predict that COVID-19 will remain a threat in 2021. As such, much of the university’s work will continue online and, where it cannot be conducted remotely, it will take place under vigilant conditions next year.

This, said Phakeng, underscores the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and washing and sanitising hands regularly.

Costs of the pandemic

To many, the pandemic has been tragic. Phakeng expressed her sympathy for the nine UCT colleagues and one student who have died of COVID-19 to date.

“We need to find a way to acknowledge those we have lost, to honour their lives and what they mean to us, and to help teach future generations about this chapter in our history. But future generations should also learn how this tragedy brought out the best in us: the bonds of solidarity that we forged, the compassion we displayed, the humanity we extended to all and the sacrifices that we were prepared to make in the service of the greater good,” she said.


“I want to make special mention of the many colleagues across campus who have been working hard to help people cope during lockdown.”

UCT has been involved in advising the government at provincial and national level on the pandemic’s implications for health, higher education, human settlements, science and technology, social development, small business development, and trade and industry, among others. In addition, staff members joined the provincial Department of Health and the National Health Laboratory Service to work in hospitals and clinics and to offer weekly webinars for healthcare professionals.

Internal efforts have been extensive too.

“I want to make special mention of the many colleagues across campus who have been working hard to help people cope during lockdown and to prepare our facilities for the safest possible phased return to campus,” said Phakeng.

Business as usual

Despite the extraordinary circumstances, UCT staff have continued the critical work of running the university according to its principles of good governance, including remaining faithful to the commitment of transforming the institution. This has been helped by judicious fundraising and budgeting, and generous benefactors.

“The COVID-19 UCT Emergency Fund, which is administered by the Development and Alumni Department, has raised almost R8.6 million, including donations from individual staff members,” said Phakeng. “I have to say thank you to Dr Russell Ally and his colleagues … for leading this endeavour and also thank you to everyone who contributed.”

The University Finance Committee has, she explained, allocated an initial amount of R30 million towards the institution’s expected total increase in costs. The Department of Higher Education and Training has also approved the reallocation of government funding to support the additional costs incurred due to COVID-19. So far, the university has disbursed in excess of R36 million of this grant to cover direct costs of COVID-19.

Unexpected costs for 2020 included those monies required to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities during lockdown, staff who required private transport and other assistance, and the modification of campus buildings and rooms to achieve health and safety requirements.

Taking care in tough times

In his presentation, UCT’s chief operating officer, Dr Reno Morar, reiterated the fact that COVID-19 remains a threat. He stressed that those who are able to work from home must do so, and those whose work requires them to be on campus must adhere to all protocols to protect themselves and others.


“It has been a stressful time and we want to manage financial, social and environmental sustainability, and we can only do that if we work steady and strong, together.”

Morar responded to questions about human resources policies and practices, saying that all existing policies on leave and sick leave remain in place. He added that the university would support staff with comorbidity issues and undertake health risk assessments on a case-by-case basis. He also confirmed that the university planned to publish a framework around the hosting of small conferences shortly.

Acknowledging that 2020 had been a difficult year, Morar said that the university was in a “steady financial situation now”, but conceded that 2021 would be a difficult year in terms of financial sustainability and the university’s budget.

“It is well known that the South African economy will struggle and that government funding will be reduced. So, the appeal from me and the executive to you is that we continue to work hard to maintain our finances to save costs and to look after resources. It has been a stressful time and we want to manage financial, social and environmental sustainability, and we can only do that if we work steady and strong, together,” he said.

Rising to the occasion

Focusing on the issues involving her portfolio, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Associate Professor Lis Lange said: “It has been a difficult period but there is no doubt that the whole of the UCT community has risen to the occasion in unbelievable ways. The response from faculties has been extraordinary and the cooperation from the students and student leadership has also been very important.”

The university, she said, will complete the year via remote teaching and it will be proposed to Senate for its approval that the first semester of the 2021 academic year be completed online.

The challenges of 2020, she said, have taught the university many important things about online learning and the difficulties it poses, particularly for vulnerable students whose living conditions are not conducive to remote learning – even when the university supplies data and devices.

Staff also learned that not all courses are suited to online teaching, which required some students to return to campus. As such, she said, the partial reopening of libraries and the virtual library offering are essential for continued learning.

She expects to have proposed teaching and learning models for 2021 to share with staff by the end of November.

New research insights and a return to residences

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison said that the disruption of lockdown was positive for some researchers in that it gave them time to focus on their subject matter and afforded new insights. For others it presented significant challenges, including funding issues, meeting deliverables, conducting fieldwork and limited access to laboratories and studios.


“We can certainly celebrate how agile we were in research during this time.”


“The benefits though were that, because the entire world was experiencing similar conditions, we were able to collaborate online and across portfolios,” she said. “We can certainly celebrate how agile we were in research during this time, particularly with regards to our contribution to COVID-19 research.”

Looking primarily at students’ return to residences, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation Professor Loretta Feris described the criteria for deciding who could return and when they could do so. She also outlined the practices in place to ensure that health and safety regulations are adhered to by students.

Vulnerable students were prioritised, she said. Even before students were invited back into residences, the tutor and mentor programmes that they had access to previously were made operational online. A tracking system was implemented to analyse the usage of the programmes to understand both equity and access. Mentors and tutors also received support and study-buddy and writing-buddy programmes were developed to further assist students in need.

Governance, exams and admissions

The final address was made by UCT Registrar Mr Royston Pillay, who assured staff that despite the uncertain times regular issues of governance at the university have applied throughout.

Mr Pillay explained that the 2020 exams will happen online where possible and, where invigilated exams are necessary, all health and safety protocols will be in place. Exams will end on 9 December and preliminary results will be available on 23 December.

He added that UCT has had an increase in both undergraduate and postgraduate applications for 2021 and that the university will start the 2021 academic year on 15 March 2021.

Phakeng closed the meeting thanking her executive and staff: “UCT’s work is the result of not just these leaders but of the many colleagues on different teams who continue to serve the university during the unique circumstances provided by COVID-19.”

Watch the full recording of the Special Staff Assembly.

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