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Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Prof. Mpedi discusses UJ’s strategic approach to sustainability

This interview with Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of Johannesburg first appeared in AfricaLive .

In the days following the COP 26 summit, AfricaLive spoke with Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of Johannesburg, regarding UJ’s approach to finding sustainability solutions through embracing the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution.

Key Points

  • The private sector and higher education institutions must strengthen ties in South Africa to accelerate the economic development of the country and to put the country on the right environmental path.
  • Business and higher education can push for ethical and sustainable solutions and still thrive.
  • Higher education institutions and academics must also increase collaboration. “South Africa is having serious issues with water and it would serve us to work on that as a unit instead of working in silos.”
  • Prof Mpedi calls for academics to also invest the time in marketing their work, breaking down silos through collaboration, and stepping up communication to ensure work and research is understood by a wider audience.

AfricaLive: We are speaking shortly after the COP-26 summit was held in Glasgow. Do you see the summit as a success or failure?

Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi: In my language, there is a phrase that translates to “seeing is believing”. A lot has been said about the leader of Barbados stealing the limelight. The fact that all these world leaders came together for this common cause must count for something. What matters the most is what is done after this. Let’s see what happens after the conference because all that matters is the execution.

AfricaLive: As we look to a sustainable future for the African continent, how will the worker and the leader of the future differ from previous generations and how is the University of Johannesburg preparing for this?

Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi: Gone are the days when people only worked at one place for the length of their careers. This has been the case over the last decade with people changing jobs more frequently. The advent of the new technologies within the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) framework has also disrupted the way we look at work today. Technology is offering new opportunities in multiple industries and this calls for the worker and leader of the future to have different sets of skills. They will need to be lifelong learners because that is now more important than ever.

We as the University of Johannesburg are a leader when it comes to 4IR and machine learning. Our initiative is led by our Vice-Chancellor Professor Marwala. We have done well to incorporate new technologies in our curriculum so that our students are prepared for technologies that are known and adaptable enough for technologies yet to come. We are working to steer our students away from narrow-minded thinking in their careers. Even those that study law must have an idea of artificial intelligence. To this effect, we have developed courses; one of them being Artificial Intelligence in the 4IR Age. To date, we have over 6000 students who have taken it.

We have another course that incorporates African insights so that we can enlighten them on our challenges as a continent. The university has also invested in several institutes one of them being the institute for intelligent systems which recently acquired a robot called Spot designed by Boston Dynamics.

The robot helps us in our teaching and research. We also have incorporated programmes that have to do with virtual reality and augmented reality. Virtual reality is amazing for us because we can apply it on so many levels.

Students in mining courses can learn about blasting without leaving campus. It also helps us in our faculties of science and education. Such technologies help prepare our students for the future while helping us put it all in a South African context. Africans were not gainfully involved in the first, second and third industrial revolutions. We must be major players in the fourth industrial revolution and we are preparing our students for that. Sustainability must be incorporated in our teaching and we must scrap any courses that don’t meaningfully change people’s lives.

AfricaLive: The critical challenge of our time lies in adapting our economic system to a truly sustainable model. In response to the sustainability challenges of our time how has the identity of the University of Johannesburg developed in recent years?

Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi: We believe that access and excellence are not mutually exclusive in terms of how we impact the people we enrol. The University of Johannesburg has no desire to be an elitist institution. Most of our students are first-generation university goers and when they leave, they go out there and positively make disruptions in various professions.

In a country where poverty is rife and joblessness is a major problem, our goal is to be accessible to the masses. If you look at the higher education impact rankings which measure sustainable development goals, we are ranked first in Africa. We are also ranked first in the world by Times Higher Education for Decent Work and Economic Growth. Each of our campuses has sections that are powered by solar energy. We have worked hard to make breakthroughs in solar and we are looking to incorporate more sustainable energy solutions. Our efforts in solar energy adoption showcase our ability to walk the talk when it comes to the sustainability question.

AfricaLive: There is often a disconnect between the private sector and the higher education sector when it comes to identifying & developing the skills and knowledge South Africa needs for its next stage of development. 

How can we build more effective partnerships between business and education?

Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi: There are opportunities for the private sector to work with higher education for mutual benefit. The opportunity is not fully understood. For example, private companies can invest in university research and development and then claim tax debates for it. This is the case here in South Africa and it seems like most companies are not aware of it. I believe in the intellectual capital our institutions of higher learning have when it comes to our professors and students. I believe in their curiosity and eagerness to solve the problems of the day.

I believe that private sector organisations can save a lot of money if they partner with universities on projects. A lot can come out of them handing one problem to a professor and funding PhD and masters students. I have looked at the car industry in Germany where manufacturers applied this same concept and it turned out to be a worthy endeavour. Both the private sector and universities must come together and see what value can be created in South Africa.

As things stand, big questions have to be asked. What do institutions of higher learning add to the economy? Do most African countries have these statistics documented? I sincerely doubt that most of our countries have quantified the impact that institutions of higher learning have made. That can be a good starting point to prove that we don’t just consume resources, we also contribute to society. The University of Johannesburg has contributed immensely to the development of South Africa. We have come up with discoveries and have also handed out many patents. I can only imagine what we could achieve if we received proper private funding.

AfricaLive: Higher education was very much on the fringes of the COP26 summit. How can we work to ensure the higher education sector is recognised as a priority sector in the fight against climate change alongside energy, agriculture, and transport?

Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi: A good starting point would be taking stock of what universities are already doing. Our institution is already doing a lot when it comes to energy. Our Faculty of Engineering adopted a village in Limpopo in partnership with a private company. We installed lighting systems, water pumps and other amenities all run by solar energy. If more private entities join in, such projects can be scaled up. With solar energy, you will have reduced the need for chopping down trees for fuel.

Our cause can also be improved if we stopped behaving like rivals in some instances and instead work together. There are areas of commonality that we can work on like water. South Africa is having serious issues with water and it would serve us to work on that as a unit instead of working in silos. We have researchers that do great papers on issues like this but their work remains locked away on shelves.

As academics, we must ensure that our research gets to be seen widely through Op-eds and other avenues. Our policymakers need to help us as well. Most of our legislators are not known to study researched material on nanotechnology and see how water can easily be provided to the common man and woman. We as academics must also get good at selling our work instead of spending all our time in labs. Some academics have shown the way by working with NGOs while also connecting with academics from the North.

AfricaLive: Prof. Chris Pearce, vice-principal of research at the University of Glasgow, said the following prior to the  COP26 summit: “I think we need to grasp the opportunity to make the point that tacking the climate crisis requires sustained investment in research, people, facilities, infrastructure and partnerships”. 

In the South African or African context, what partnerships and infrastructure do you believe are required to build more sustainable models?

Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi: We must partner when it comes to giving our students exposure to new technologies. The new technologies must work to solve current problems. When I was a pupil, the curriculum was terrible. We had to go through classes learning about irrelevant things like locust body parts, while my age mates abroad were learning about coding. Partnerships with global partners would help us level up and catch up with the rest of the world.

Today you don’t have to be in the same room much less the same continent to easily communicate. Virtual classes can be offered that will help tool and equip our students. Partnerships with local industry can also be a big boost. We need to partner with them on water issues, health issues, agricultural issues and so on. Our university has opened up our MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) for artificial intelligence in the fourth industrial revolution. They can register and take part free of charge. The programme is not free for us because we have to pay for licenses, but we want to grant people access to this technology.

As academic leaders, we also have to think like business people because we must keep our doors open. A lot of us realise that we can push for ethical and sustainable solutions and still thrive. We should never take positions that compromise our values for profit. Take the electrical vehicle industry for example. The adoption rate in South Africa is painfully slow for obvious reasons such as fuel levy. We must prepare for this progressive reality without holding back for selfish interests.

AfricaLive: As a final point, I would like to ask you a personal question. What are your own ambitions concerning the impact you wish to have on South Africa’s future?

Prof. Letlhokwa George Mpedi: I would like to see access to quality education for all becoming an issue that all involved agree about. Any child that is academically inclined should be supported at all levels. We want people leaving our institution to be educated and not mere certificate holders. My wish is that our graduates make positive changes to society instead of behaving like elite individuals who look down on others.

The University of Johannesburg also wants to plant seeds of curiosity and create a global view amongst our students. We have a programme known as “Innovation by Bus” which has since slowed down due to COVID-19. The programme usually has students going to Zambia and other neighbouring countries just for the experience.

Our idea is to expose them to different environments so that they develop an innovative and problem-solving eye quite early as they get exposed to other cultures. If we globalise this programme, a lot can be gained and more value can be created. Our students must realise that they can contribute to solving problems in small ways. High youth unemployment must be solved by creating an army of students that will go out there and create job opportunities.

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