National Higher Education Conference : Reinventing South Africa's Universities of the Future

Infrastructure planning for future universities requires a total paradigm shift

If you thought that a building is just bricks, mortar and glass; a purely utilitarian enclosure and an insignificant player in the life of a university, think again. As this session, titled Infrastructure for a Growing and Evolving Sector would aptly demonstrate, buildings are breathing, living spaces that, like every other aspect of life, need to change and adapt to the needs of the pervasive Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The session also demonstrated a growing need for universities to move from the insular, closed "cities" they traditionally have been to become an integral part of the communities they serve. Speakers pointed to a need for shifts in infrastructural strategic planning. One thing that became clear was that the 4IR era necessitates lifelong learning which requires universities to rethink the allocation of resources for optimum usage and value.

Universities need to re-imagine themselves as part of the broader eco system

Prof Heather Nel

Professor Heather Nel, Senior Director of Institutional Planning at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, put it all into perspective. She said local embeddedness -- a recurring refrain at the USAf conference -- was critical. "If universities continue to position themslves as ivory towers, they will find it harder to get funding than if they see themselves as part of a community. We need different paradigms and a perspective that looks at the purpose of planning in terms of the bigger eco system."

Professor Heather Nel, Senior Director of Institutional Planning at Nelson Mandela University.

She said the university had been seen as an entity separate from society for too long. Institutions now needed to integrate.

Adding her voice to this debate, Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director General: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), stated that "the issue of integrated planning is very important. Our infrastructure efficiency programme has changed - from 'we want everything new' to looking at the principles of how spaces are designed."

Hubs of convergence

Professor Nel said she believed that infrastructure should not just be for university staff and students. "We need hubs of convergence where students, academics, support staff and community members can come together." Futuristic institutions would accommodate multi-generational learners and re-configure all spaces. "Learning environments have to be created in all areas. Residences are not just living spaces, but learning, digital spaces too."

The institutional planner said that her biggest frustration lay in planning in silos. "Planning needs to be done in consultation with academics and deans. All planning priorities must merge and align with what is happening internally at the university, but also with consideration to the external environment." She said that to ensure that spaces were used as effectively as possible, a university strategic plan needed to feed into an infrastructure plans that, in turn, fed into an academic plan.

"Everyone wants new buildings, cutting-edge technology with the best IT infrastructure," she said. "We've developed an infrastruture model where academics give us a wish-list that is assessed and prioritised against the university strategy informed by national and global imperatives. This factors in partnerships with your town and community." Professor Nel described how the Nelson Mandela University Medical School was being established from ground up, in partnership with local hospitals and clinics. This would see "underutilised hospital spaces, for example, becoming residences. The university is much more locally embedded."

Addressing the same session on the University of Witwatersrand Infrastructure Rethink, Mr Thato Lehutso, Senior Manager: Business Processes, WitsICT, pointed out that in this digitised era, the needs of teaching, learning and living spaces had changed. Change was the only constant, he stated, adding that universities needed adaptability to survive. He said universities also needed to forge industry partnerships to contend with the shifting job landscape in the wake of 4IR.

Mr Thato Lehutso
Mr Thato Lehutso, Senior Manager: Business Processes, WitsICT at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Generations X, Y and Z want shorter, cheaper courses

While change was inevitable, Mr Lehutso said he believed there was evidence of a generational mismatch at today's institutions. Older academics - who had had a job for life and preferred face to face interaction, were pitted against Generations X,Y and Z, and Generation Alpha children born within the Information Technology (IT) era of 2010 to 2019. He said students were increasingly asking: why do I have to be in class? Why does getting my qualification/degree take so long?

In the discussion that followed, Dr Parker argued: "We are never going to be in a situation where we do not have spaces for teaching and learning. We can say it will all be virtual, but we know that is not how humans interact."

Lehutso posited that universities should consider offering shorter courses (acceptable to employers) that took less time and cost less money. The Gig economy, he said, had changed time and spatial attitudes: Why 9-5? Why work from an office? Why not more blended learning? Also, there were growing resource constraints fuelled by increasing numbers having to be accommodated in existing spaces. "Travelling costs, access to accommodation, safety and security on campus, social disruption (strikes), delivery service disruptions (electricity/water cuts) -- all these have to be considered when re-imagining future campuses," Lehutso advised.

For an example of a success story he cited Wits University's high-tech eZone - a student-centred adaptive learning environment that was a collaboration between the School of Therapeutic Sciences and the School of Education. "eZone allows students to engage with an online environment and with their community to learn in a different way – both online and face to face," Lehutso explained. He said the eZone equipped students going into tech savvy environments with the requisite skills. Fully automated smart classrooms (with no chalkboard in sight) included a learning innovation centre and reconfigurative furniture - where students were able to stream into a lecture and interact.

Mr Ludwig Hansen
Mr Ludwig Hansen, a member of the DHET's Macro Infrastructure Framework (MIF) team.

Mr Ludwig Hansen, a member of the DHET's Macro Infrastructure Framework (MIF) team, is also attached to the Wits Structure Development Support team. He is also part of the team responsible for redesigning/ repositioning two new universities - Sol Plaatjie University in Kimberley and the University of Mpumalanga in Mbombela. He said questions that needed to be answered were: What is the nature of the future university? What is our spacial response to that as student needs change? Sol Plaatje University, designed to be engrained in the very fabric of Kimberley; had become a part of the 24-hour life of that city, Hansen cited. "We're creating a baseline to include all 26 universities in SA so that we correct past mistakes and desist from working in silos." Again, he reiterated the importance of universities becoming a part of the community they served, allowing learning beyond the classroom. "Collaboration is key. A university campus has a finely tuned ecology."

Better utilisation of university land

One of Hansen's bugbears, it turned out, was equity of access and the space given to parking lots. "In Joburg, 49% of our students arrive by foot, yet we give 60% of our space to cars. Universities are huge custodians of land. They have a lot of both heritage and under-utilised space. We are helping them assess optimisation of usage for their buildings by looking at space efficiencies as well as time and programme efficiencies (six lecture halls used for six hours a day is inefficient)."

As the way forward, he argued, universities needed interchangeable spaces, shared spaces, dedicated spaces, flexible but heavily used spaces; spaces that could become meeting points with stakeholders and partners, spaces that made universities visible to their neighbours and the community they served. "Universities have a transformative role to play in our society and hold a lot of sway. Vice-Chancellors are often quasi mayors of their towns. So open-ended architecture, heavily serviced spaces are what is needed; not principalities for deans of schools."

Hansen also expressed a belief that student residences should become an extension of the teaching programme and be conducive to learning. He and Professor Nel agreed that apart from a few problematic legacy buildings, top-class facilities already existed. Shrinking resources dictated that distinctive mandates be assigned to different buildings going forward, the academics suggested.

A final word from Professor Nel: "Don't underestimate the power of space, of buildings, of infrastructure. Students and student success is our goal. We plan for a humanising experience, developing graduateness. Student and staff must feel affirmed, nourished and encouraged so they can grow."

What holy cows must the SA Higher Education system rid itself of, to forge ahead?

From the audience, Dr Gary W Paul, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Resources and Operations at the Central University of Technology raised the following point: "It is widely accepted that SA Higher Education System is becoming increasingly resource-hungry. As an example, there is a huge drive to increase infrastructure, but one wonders whether the complete life-cycle cost in relation to infrastructure has been calculated at the time of erecting this infrastructure? Probably not.

Dr Diane Parker nodded, apparently in agreement.

Dr Paul continued: "The Ernst and Young (EY) report of 2016 on The University of the Future makes reference to the need for universities to revisit their operating models in the face of the changing global operating conditions and expectations of universities. As an example, the report states that the Australian University as we now know it (in 2012), will be unviable (and unrecognisably different by implication) in about 10-15 years. Given the great universities found in Australia, that statement should be carefully considered in the context of "Reimagining Higher Education in South Africa".

Dr Gary W Paul
Dr Gary W Paul, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Resources and Operations at the Central University of Technology.

In response, Prof Nel mentioned that the way in which certain senior academics "owned" academic infrastructure , as an example which could be used for multiple purposes, was one of the sacred cows that needed to be dealt with.

In another input from the audience, an impassioned Mr Segomotso Sebokedi, Chief Executive Officer at South African Student Cities Network, complained of inefficient usage of space by both universities and the cities within which they are located. "How would you explain the fact that each of the three universities located in Tshwane - the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Pretoria and the University of South Africa, each run their own distinct libraries? In addition to those, the City of Tshwane also has numerous libraries, scattered all over the space. A student living in Soshanguve enrolled with the University of South Africa has to incur expenses and travel all the way to the city to find quiet study space in the Unisa library, when she could achieve the same from a facility in her backyard."

Mr Segomotso Sebokedi
Mr Segomotso Sebokedi, Chief Executive Officer at South African Student Cities Network.

Sebokedi, whose background in academia lies in Student Affairs, was arguing that through student-centred planning and sharing of spaces, institutions could realise significant efficiencies in infrastructure spending and usage. He suggested that government had a role to play in this regard. Not so, Dr Diane Parker countered. "Where does the agency lie?

Dr Diane Parker
Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director-General: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Institutions have formed their own partnerships; they deal directly with their communities and other stakeholders. Why is there a belief that government always has to step in?"

This one-and-a-half hour session might not have provided all the answers to the issues raised; but it sure managed to stimulate new thinking in the system.

Written by Charmain Naidoo, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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