The Challenges and Opportunities facing Higher Education Institutions in the Digital Era

Three leading South African academics shared a virtual platform to discuss High Tech Innovation in Africa at the annual Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla 2020, on Wednesday, 16 September.

The 2020 edition, themed #African Entrepreneurship through Technology, attracted participants from South Africa's 26 universities, across the African continent and elsewhere around the world.

Introducing the panel, session moderator, Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at the Port Elizabeth-based Nelson Mandela University, said advances in technology in Africa in the last two decades had shown how innovation could contribute to economic development across the continent."By understanding how the application of challenges in technology takes hold globally – from initial discovery to new commercial products and services – private companies and firms in Africa can better deploy investment into successful innovations that can propel the continent's productivity and growth," she said.

She added that African success stories in this context abound, citing among them the mobile phone solar charging system as well as innovations in education and agriculture. She singled out Kenya as an example, explaining that it had set itself up as a magnet for high-tech incubators. These, she added, supported by all important public policy, can influence business growth. "Policy makers can drive technological advances that lead to economic growth and productivity."

Africa has proven its capability to drive economic development through innovation, said Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University, and moderator of the High Tech Innovation session at the EDHE Lekgotla 2020.
Dr Thandi Mgwebi
Africa has proven its capability to drive economic development through innovation, said Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University, and moderator of the High Tech Innovation session at the EDHE Lekgotla 2020.

The speakers were Professor Derrick Swartz, Chief Strategy Officer: Ocean Sciences at Nelson Mandela University and Special Advisor to the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation; Dr Linda Linganiso, Director: Research, Innovation and Post-Graduate Support and a scientist, author and innovator or note at the Durban University of Technology, and Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice Principal and Vice-Chancellor Designate at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The changing world of work has serious implications for university curricula

There were several common threads running through all three presentations, the most consistent being that the world has fundamentally, digitally, changed. This change will have a profound effect on the world of work, on jobs, careers and the way the university adapts to meet these new demands. As a result, the way in which universities move forward, the way in which they design curricula and imagine courses to meet future needs will have to be reviewed.

Dr Linda Linganiso
In this era, university education should be about training students to identify industrial and societal problems and be able to propose solutions, Dr Linda Linganiso, Director: Research, Innovation and Post-Graduate Support at the Durban University of Technology, told the EDHE Lekgotla audience.

In her presentation, titled Afrotech, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Circular Economy, Dr Linganiso said: "Old ways of climbing the corporate ladder are no more. These days, you have what looks more like a maze. We can no longer prepare students for jobs that don't exist. Now it's about training them to identify industrial and societal problems and be able to propose solutions. Design thinking is what is needed to instil an entrepreneurial mind-set that allows students to be self-starters and self-managers."

In this era, university education should be about training students to identify industrial and societal problems and be able to propose solutions, Dr Linda Linganiso, Director: Research, Innovation and Post-Graduate Support at the Durban University of Technology, told the EDHE Lekgotla audience.

Professor Vilakazi, who spoke on Making the Case for High-Tech, High Growth start-up Ecosystems in Africa, said there was a need for rapid curriculum change: "If it takes two years to change the curriculum, by implementation time, it's already out of date."

"If it takes two years to change the curriculum, by implementation time, it's already out of date," Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor Designate at the University of the Witwatersrand, said.
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi
"If it takes two years to change the curriculum, by implementation time, it's already out of date," Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor Designate at the University of the Witwatersrand, said.

Dr Linganiso agreed. "What is needed to promote student innovation and entrepreneurship is radical curriculum reform to include innovation where students learn how to come up with business models." This needed to include, among other modules, patent clinics, where law students helped draw up patents for student inventors; student internship programmes that provided experience in start-ups, fund raising through business plan competitions.

Most importantly, she said, institutions needed what she called an entrepreneurship based academic residential community. "This provides a platform for the community served by the university to have a say in what they want to see in their communities. Equally importantly, this gives students the opportunity to identify problems, and propose solutions."

Speaking in his capacity as a Member of the USAf World of Work Strategy Group, set up to steer public universities to respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Professor Swartz said there had been "tumultuous changes that have resulted in the reshaping of the nature of work, of jobs and of careers."

Technology has triggered disruption

He added: "Technological transformations have triggered massive disruptions in the production of goods and services as well as in the labour markets, the very nature of work and the nature of jobs and careers." Qualifications, frameworks, forms of pedagogy and forms of engagement with industry as well have all been affected.

Further stating that focusing on African entrepreneurship through technology was both germane and relevant, Professor Swartz outlined challenges. "South Africa, along with the rest of the world, is in crisis with a failing economy that poses serious consequences for the stability of our democracy." Joblessness, high unemployment, stark levels of inequality and a failure by both the state and the private sector to provide leadership to overcome these challenges was a major factor.

"The economy is in a structural cul-de-sac, dominated by large-scale firms with comparatively low levels of locally-driven innovation and low-levels spend on R&D."

Technology, Professor Vilakazi believes, has "overtaken our institutional framework". What we need, the professor says, is to "think, recalibrate and not allow these drivers to overtake us, especially when they have an impact on Africa where the excesses of all the global challenges manifest themselves. "We need to manage the change and not become followers of these changes."

We must provide meaningful work opportunities for young people

The future of work will change, he said. "Jobs are going to change. In the next decade changes will include artificial intelligence (AI), software general operations manager positions, data scientists and a host of other technical jobs. "But, soft skills are going to be important too. There will be more need for psychologists than computer programmers because of this exponential explosion that is moving faster than our natural evolutionary ability."

Professor Derrick Swartz
Unless South Africa provides meaningful work opportunities for young people, "the youth bulge will have social, political and economic consequences," Professor Derrick Swartz, Ministerial Special Advisor and Member of USAf's World of Work Strategy Group, said.

Shifting demographics, where Africa (and Asia Pacific) had a "youth bulge" presented huge challenges, the speakers all agreed. Professor Swartz identified demographics as both a pressure point and a new potential opportunity as he explored high technology transformation in South Africa. "There have been major demographic shifts in population, with 7.2 billion people on the planet. Generational shifts have seen a youth bulge in Africa and ageing profiles in the advanced industrial economies," he said.

Unless South Africa provides meaningful work opportunities for young people, "the youth bulge will have social, political and economic consequences," Professor Derrick Swartz, Ministerial Special Advisor and Member of USAf's World of Work Strategy Group, said.

Changing demographics would require South Africans to look at ways in which to provide meaningful work opportunities for young people. "The youth bulge will have social, political and economic consequences," he said, adding that technological advances are being used to make our world more sustainable, to feed our population.

We must transform our research into market products and services

Another area of commonality covered by the speakers was the need for the commercialisation of university research and the development of that research into product and services. This would also create revenue streams for universities.The academic profession, said Dr Linganiso, is changing in Higher Education Institutions (HEI) driven by the fact that they are funded by big corporations like the World Bank. She said there was a "high need for academics to redirect our focus towards globalisation.

"Currently HEIs are forced to develop innovative products that will penetrate not just the local market, but international markets too. HEIs are forced to operate as market oriented firms which means that we need to find ways to turn research into potential products."

We are on the right path

Factored into the changing nature of HEIs are political and socio economic issues. Globalisation has led to HEIs developing products for the international market while Corporatism has meant HEIs engage in knowledge-based economies. Dr Linganiso said the DHET's response to these changes in external and internal environments had been to establish entrepreneurial development in Higher Education. She was referring to the EDHE programme hosting this annual Lekgotla under the USAf banner.

The intent was to develop student entrepreneurship; to train students by giving them practical skills so they have the skills to come up with innovative businesses. "After graduation, these students should be capable of starting up small to medium enterprise businesses that are profitable in a way that they can create jobs and improve the economy of South Africa," she said.

The second is the development of entrepreneurship in academia – training academics to be able to develop human capital. The third is the development of entrepreneurial universities, where academics can find ways to help the university generate the third stream of income – including turning research into products or services.

It would seem she was implying that public universities are onto something good. They just have to see it through and ensure it generates the desired outcomes, sustainably.

All-in-all, the EDHE Lekgotla 2020 attracted 1221 attendees, mainly students, academics, senior leadership of universities and higher education policy makers from South Africa's higher education system. Other attendees logged in from Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, and even from Europe and the United States.

The primary purpose of this event is to facilitate information exchange and the sharing of thought leadership and best practices in entrepreneurship between experts, trail blazers in business, academics, policy makers and the budding student entrepreneurs. The virtual 2020 edition was the 4th Lekgotla since the establishment of the EDHE programme in 2016.

EDHE is one of Universities South Africa's flagship undertakings funded mainly from the Department of Higher Education and Training's University Capacity Development Programme.


The Author, Charmain Naidoo, is an Independent Writer commissioned by Universities South Africa

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