The boundary between university and business needs to become more porous as new graduates grapple with the increasingly complex demands of a changing workplace. This is the result of a baseline study on South African graduates from the perspective of employers, carried out by the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) in partnership with Higher Education South Africa (HESA).
The study clearly showed that before graduating, students need to have a clear idea of the expectations of their future employers. Presentations from business, companies building relationships with universities and dual appointments where higher education and business can ‘share’ expertise are all ways of allowing for a greater interchange between business and higher education. In this regard, the role of higher education cannot be treated in isolation and must take its rightful place in producing thinking, responsive and intellectually well-grounded individuals who are flexible and can readily adapt to new demands and challenges.
Professor Ihron Rensburg, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of UJ, says that ensuring that the university’s graduates are fully equipped to join the workforce, is one of the institutions main focus areas. With many UJ students being first generation students, these students are often financially supported by their extended families or communities, but carry the weight of the community’s expectation of being able to return the favour upon completion of their studies. They have little local support while studying though, often lacking food and adequate accommodation. They might even lack life skills and technical experience, preventing them of being fully workplace ready at the end of their studies. The result may then be not only a slow start, but limited career growth.
“Over the last eight years UJ has made tremendous strides in this field, culminating a year and half ago in the launch of the Resolution Circle, a UJ owned research and development ecosystem for technology that bridges the gap between student and industry and significantly impacts on the employability of graduates.”
Evidence of the success of this approach is the universities latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings for 2013/2014 which placed UJ in the top 4% of global universities and the only comprehensive South African University to reach the top 650 ranked institutions. Significantly in terms of the sub category employability of graduates, it was ranked in the top 2% in the world holding the 392nd position in the sub category of employer reputation. This is an admirable feat, as UJ is the youngest of only seven South African universities in the top 650 placing.
Prof William Clarke, CEO of Resolution Circle, says the centre has been enormously successful in bringing together various disciplines and preparing graduates for real life business challenges. He explains that Resolution Circle was established as an independent commercial business in May last year to act as a commercial interface between industry and universities, offering the necessary facilities and employed professionals from industry to help incubate technology and engineering start-ups. However at the same time it offers students from a variety of disciplines the opportunity to acquire the sought-after skills and training to be industry ready. “It provides work integrated learning (WIL) – which is a requirement of engineering diploma students at UJ – by partnering with industry on projects, utilising learner-employee teams under supervision of experienced professionals and using industry grade equipment.”
WIL is conducted through a number of programmes learner employees participate in. In the Skills Development Programme they receive hands-on training in the basic trades, such as carpentry, fitting, welding and sheet metal work, electrical, and industrial automation and control, as well as training in Health and Safety and First-aid.
Through the Experiential Programme they work on industry projects in interdisciplinary teams under the guidance of experienced industry supervisors. Team members are assigned different roles and rotate every month, with regular evaluation being based on their performance and technical ability as team members in the different roles.
In addition, the Workplace Readiness Programme provides learner employees with training around various workplace issues. This includes aspects such as soft skills, general behaviour and etiquette, basic office survival skills, entrepreneurship, introduction to common company policies and procedures and employment contracts.
Finally, in the New Technology Practice Programme they are introduced to the new and exciting technologies they may encounter in industry, such as 3D printing and scanning, CNC machines, and robotics.
“What’s especially beneficial about this WIL is that Resolution Circle is so strongly focused on innovation, and that the students get to chance work in interdisciplinary teams as one does in ‘real life.’ This provides students with truly innovative workplace learning that in fact prepares them to be visionaries – a definite requirement to succeed in today’s competitive working environment.”
Yet it goes even further. By acting as interface between industry and the university, Resolution Circle’s work also ploughs back these innovations into the teaching and research of the university. “The result is therefore integrated training, research and development ecosystems that deliver innovative technology-focused solutions to the industry – in more than one way,” Clarke concludes.