Universities need to re-think their use of resources and modes of engagement for an inclusive economy

07-10-21 USAf 0 comment

South Africa is standing at a crossroads, facing an unprecedented set of challenges where ‘business as usual’ will not work; where universities must find new ways to do things differently – especially in the context of the pandemic, a crisis that presents serious challenges and new opportunities.

So said Dr Blade Nzimande (right), Minister of Higher Education and Training, Science and Innovation in his keynote address at Universities South Africa’s (USAf) 2nd National Higher Education Conference, organised in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

This is the largest Higher Education conference ever hosted in South Africa – with 146 participants (chairs, speakers) and just under 2000 delegates. The event is being hosted online live-streamed and livestreamed from the Future Africa Campus of the University of Pretoria.

Dr Nzimande said that self-critical reflection is necessary on how resources are used as well as finding workable alternatives to the way things are done.

He said the significance of The Engaged University theme transcended pure academic interests.

“Our universities are a vital public resource and catalyst for an inclusive economic future. Therefore, key questions about how you engage, who you engage with, on what terms and for whose benefit, are as much a concern to your internal stakeholders as it is for society and economy.”

He hoped the outcomes of the summit would have strategic and practical consequence, providing a framework for solutions to problems facing humanity.

Vaccine research and manufacture

Dr Nzimande said his Ministry has been tasked with leading a process, together with relevant branches of the State and the private sector, to build a “strategically-feasible level of sovereign capacity for the development of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostic and epidemiological surveillance tools – not only in respect of the CoViD-19 threat, but against future pandemics.”

The pandemic had left South Africa vulnerable to vaccine hoarding and “its use for chauvinistic and imperialist interests. We have vowed that this must never happen again,” he said.

He added that he was encouraged by the initiatives of at least four SA universities on the vaccine research front but that he would like to see all universities mobilised, “from discovery science, upstream drug development and design, formulation science, engineering and logistics to build a diversified and competitive national industry.”

The role of universities in the economy

Dr Nzimande said the role and contribution of SA universities to the growth, development and transformation of the economy, and the quest for a more equal and inclusive society, had come under the spotlight.

Universities are engaged in the economy in at least three major ways.

  • They produce and supply skilled professionals and knowledge workers to diverse public, private and civil society markets, linking them into these labour markets in complex and dynamic ways.
  • They are engaged in the production of knowledge (basic and applied) via research and development, often (though not always) leading to new technologies and its diffusion in society and the economy – at local, district, regional, national and even in some instances, trans-national scales.
  • They are economic entities in their own right, represented in large-scale campus infrastructure; paying rates and local taxes, providing rentals, student digs, staff salaries and benefits, and consumables amongst others to their local economies in towns and cities across South Africa. (There would be no Stellenbosch without the Stellenbosch University; no Makhanda without Rhodes University he told delegates.)

“In this regard, university leaders can play an important role in ensuring that local communities, especially black youth and women, are engaged in the production and supply of goods and services to our various campuses,” Dr Nzimande said.

More collaboration needed between universities

Dr Nzimande said collaboration was critical for the sector. “We need to figure out how our universities can create new and scaled-up Research for Development Impact (RDI) networks – involving historically disadvantaged institutions (HDI) and rural universities – to plug into these innovative spaces. “This can only happen if there is more effective cross-system networking and collaboration in deploying scarce resources.”

He said there was significant, but not sufficient, collaboration within the sector.

“As far as I know, all 26 universities work in USAf within different Strategy Groups and Communities of Practice in Teaching and Learning, Research and Development, Transformation. But should this not be extended outwards? Should we not perhaps explore large-scale collaborative platforms between all our universities with our key Science Councils such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Human Sciences Research Council and the Agricultural Research Council to tackle national economic innovation challenges identified in the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Programme (ERRP) around food security, industrialisation, and pandemics?

“Should we not build a more systematic alliance between universities and other parts of the Post-School Education and training (PSET) system – specifically, with TVET and CET Colleges?”

He added that this aspect was “perhaps our weakest link in the entire system and constrains our capacity to mobilise across the ‘articulation scale’ in ways that can bring together all PSET institutional resources and human talent to tackle especially local-scale economic developmental challenges”.

The Minister said the District Development Model (DDM) provided a perfect opportunity for all universities – regardless of their typological ‘status’ – to become embedded in districts in which their campuses operate.

“It is in this context that my Ministry initiated the concept of district-level Education and Innovation Precincts to bring together otherwise disparate universities, technical vocational and education training colleges, Community education and training colleges and sector education and training authorities, schools and other innovation players in particular parts of the country to focus resources and energies around socio-economic development issues,” he said.

Current crisis, challenges and opportunities

The world, Dr Nzimande said, is being battered by a series of convergent crises:

  • Neo-liberal economic globalisation
  • Ecological degradation
  • Social reproduction (inequality)
  • A generalised global (planetary) crisis.

The Minister said that these crises, together with disruptive effects of technological change, are posing a multiplicity of critical challenges, among them the “increasingly precarious location of women in society and communities, worsening gender inequalities, reinforcing patriarchy and the multiple crises of social reproduction.”

“Today, after much rancour, there is widespread agreement that substantial changes must be made to overcome deep structural barriers to economic participation by black, women and working people in the economy.

“There is also agreement that a capable State and enabling environment are indispensable if we are to unleash the creative energies and ingenuity of millions of our people – just like we did in the fight against apartheid.”

CoViD disruption of domestic economy

The pandemic affected an already shaky domestic economy, resulting in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcing a national State of Disaster in March 2020. And so, the national Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP) was born, the economic thrust of which was aimed at stimulating equitable and inclusive growth.

“The Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation (HESI), which brings together two departments, Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), plays a crucial role with its core mandate being the provision of the requisite skills, forms of knowledge and technological innovations.

The Minister said his portfolio’s strategic footprint includes over 800 institutional entities in both public and private sectors, and involving over 1.8m students and 30 000 staff. “The strategic capabilities of the DHET institutions, together with that of National System of Innovation (e.g. science councils, agencies and professional bodies) provide us with a powerful set of resources to shift the ground around key national development goals.

“How can we use this vast network of institutions, human talent and resources better to lift the innovation floor to achieve economies of scale in key sectors of the economy? I think the ERRP provides us with an opportunity to test new approaches.”

Strategic considerations for enhancing the role of higher education in the economy for the future

DHET and DSI will support the ERRP goals in a range of ways in line with their respective mandates. The DHET, under which universities fall – will be driving 10 cross-cutting initiatives, including:

  • Provisioning of short skills programmes
  • Workplace-based learning (WBL) programmes to respond to occupational shortages and skills gaps
  • Adaptation of the Critical Skills List
  • Strengthening entrepreneurship development programmes
  • Embedding skills planning into economic planning processes
  • Facilitating the use of the National Pathway Management Network (PMN) in the PSET system
  • Strengthening the PSET system.

These initiatives, the Minister said, would be guided within the framework of the PSET Plan, released for publication in August 2021.

The DSI would support of the ERRP via a range of interventions in areas such as:

  • Energy security – Hydrogen SA and Coal CO2 programmes
  • Industrialisation – R&D tax incentives, Technology Localisation, Technology Stations and Additive Manufacturing Programmes
  • South African Mining Extraction and Mandela Mining Precinct initiatives
  • Agriculture – Agro-processing and value chain development and Water Technologies Demonstration Programmes (WADER)
  • Infrastructure – Using SANReN and TENET model and Big Data analytics to assist SMMEs and Corporates
  • Green Economy – Imvelisi Enviropreneurs and STI4CE programmes
  • Food Security – Biosecurity Research Hub, Wheat and Beef Breeding Initiatives
  • Use of big data and digital decision support systems
  • Digital agriculture and Precision agriculture information system initiatives.

The Minister said there were many immediate and specific socio-economic challenges that required urgent and imaginative responses, including from our higher education sector.

“We see our universities as forming part of a broad-based innovation platform that fully draws on all forms of knowledge, including crucially, Indigenous Knowledge Systems, alliances involving traditional medicinal practitioners, SMMEs, social enterprises and cooperatives.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa