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We must expand and modernise our higher education system

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the outgoing vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, and on 1 March 2023, he will be the Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN under-secretary-general. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Sunday Times: 21 August 2022.

In an evolving world driven by modern technologies university education is one of the most important aspects of the economy. A study by Stats SA demonstrated that in 2021 while the unemployment rate was 32.6% it was 9.3% among university graduates. This means the chances of employment are on average more than three times better for university graduates.

The message is unmistakable we should create more opportunities for university studies. SA has 26 public universities with a total enrolment of about a million students while 700 000 are enrolled at Technical and Vocational Education and Training TVET colleges.

This ratio of university students to TVET students is not desirable. We need to recreate our education system so that we have more people at TVET colleges than at universities to set our country on a path to re industrialisation.

The 26 public universities in SA cater for a population of 60 million. Canada has 96 public universities for 38 million people while South Korea has 197 public universities for a population of 51million. SA does not have enough universities. How do we expand the higher education system? Part of the solution is to introduce online courses. Unisa should partner with big online learning companies such as edX Coursera Udacity and Udemy to expand its online offerings.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has partnered with various online learning companies and now offers many online courses including a Bachelor of Accountancy and a master s in public health. To build a world class university we need to reform the curriculum. The curricula of SA s universities are single discipline orientated. There is strong evidence that multidisciplinary education is essential in this fourth industrial revolution 4IR era. At 111 we have introduced initiatives to make the curriculum and the university experience rich in multidisciplinarity.

For example we now require all our undergraduate students to take one of two compulsory modules Africa insights or artificial intelligence AI in the 4IR. The Africa insights module teaches African literature politics and economics. Al in the 4IR teaches what AI is what it can do and what it means for society the economy and politics. Another aspect of building a world class university entails a curriculum that is up to date and up to the requisite standard. This is done through accreditation which ensures universities offer a good education.

The body responsible for accreditation is the Council of Higher Education CHE . The CHE sometimes delegates part of this responsibility to professional bodies. For example the accreditation of engineering programmes is delegated to the Engineering Council of SA and accounting programmes to the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. The general problems that affect the quality of education at our universities are lack of infrastructure and inadequate staffing.

Staff to student ratios vary greatly and they tend to be good at previously white universities and bad at historically black universities. This needs to be fixed. Doctoral qualification levels vary across the system with the universities of Stellenbosch SU Cape Town UCT Witwatersrand Wits UJ and Pretoria UP occupying the top level. In contrast previously disadvantaged universities occupy the lower levels of staff qualifications. The government must start a staff qualification project so that by 2030 more than 90% of staff at SA s universities have doctoral qualifications.

The second aspect of building a world class university is improving infrastructure. This should not be limited to bricks and mortar but should extend to the 4IR infrastructure including digital infrastructure. The digital infrastructure should include devices for learning data and telecommunication connectivity. This can be a catalytic industrialisation project to kick start the electronic device manufacturing industry. The question that needs to be answered is whether we have trained enough engineers to achieve this industrialisation initiative.

To accomplish this industrialisation, path the department of higher education & training in cooperation with the department of trade & industry should update the infrastructure development grant strategy. One measure of how well our university system is doing is how the universities perform in global rankings.

The three major global rankings are the QS Times Higher Education; THE; and Shanghai. The latest QS ranking shows that six of the top 10 African universities are South African. It also shows that UCT ranks first in Africa followed by UJ the American University of Cairo and then Wits. The Impact Ranking ranks Ill as the top university in SA followed by UCT. In Africa the top university is Aswan in Egypt followed by UJ then UCT. The latest Shanghai rankings show UCT at the top followed by Wits while IA SU and UP are statistically tied in the 3 5 band. Another aspect of building a world class university is increasing research capacity.

At UJ we have pursued a strategy of doing this through postdoctoral research fellowships visiting academics research centres and institutes. UJ has about 500 postdoctoral fellows which will grow to 650 in the next 12 months. Building a world class university requires funding. Public universities are financed by government subsidies student fees and third stream income.

Wealthy South African universities generally depend more on third stream income while historically disadvantaged universities depend on government subsidies. While fees for the poor are financed through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme NSFAS there is a missing middle of students not poor enough to qualify for NSFAS but not rich enough to afford fees.

Universities such as UJ raise as much as R200m annually to support missing middle students. Given these financial problems what is to be done? Universities must reconfigure themselves as businesses with companies that take research and training into markets as products. Many universities such as UJInvent at UJ and Wits Enterprise are commercialising their research. Historically disadvantaged universities must be brought into commercial spaces. More universities must participate in formations such as Business Unity SA. We should bear in mind that learning is changing and becoming digital.

Therefore, we must galvanise human technological and political capital to ensure that we usher South African higher education into the 4IR. Universities should not only be world class but must also be accessible especially to ordinary citizens. In addition, access should be followed by success in the form of among other things on time graduation.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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