South Africa desperately needs a culture of excellence

Posted on June 10, 2024

My term as Chairperson of Council at the University of Pretoria – or UP as we call it – comes to an end in June. Council is responsible for the governance, strategy and sustainability of the University.

I’ve served the University since 2012 and was appointed Deputy Chair in 2018, followed by my appointment as Chair in 2021. Reflecting on my time at UP got me thinking about how the higher education sector has changed over the past decade.

Ten years ago, we would never have foreseen the titanic technological leap into digitalisation, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Students across all disciplines need to be digitally literate today as all spheres of society are looking for graduates with capabilities in this area. Equally important are generic skills such as adaptive thinking, strong people management, negotiation and decision-making skills, cross-cultural competencies, and new media literacy.

Most of South Africa’s universities do not have funds available to pay for digital transformation. They have to create a special budget for this, which is what UP did when we invested R100 million in 2019 to upgrade the IT system to the point that UP is 99% digitalised today.

The government’s promise of universal bandwidth of high-speed internet to every community in South Africa, initially by 2020 and subsequently by 2024 has not yet been achieved. This will make a vast difference in ensuring educational access and a better life for all.

Our universities are committed to making a tangible difference to the people in our communities – from the child walking to school barefoot, the grandmother trying to stretch the last bit of porridge, to the family saving everything they can to educate their children so that they can attend university.

A culture of excellence

For me, a university like UP is a flagship, a light of possibility that no matter where you come from, you can become a graduate of this institution with its culture of excellence. We desperately need a culture of excellence in basic and higher education in our country – it’s the key to our survival. It will enable us to transform and thrive and rescue our South Africa from its current socio-economic decline.

If you go onto campus at UP today you will be filled with hope at the sight of so many bright young students from every sector of society and a healthy demographic and gender ratio. Of the 54 466 students enrolled, 64.7% of the undergraduate students are black and 59.6% are female. In postgraduate studies, UP has over 16 000 students of whom 71% are black and 59% female.

Throughput in the prescribed number of years for a qualification remains a major challenge facing most universities. University dropout rates in South Africa remain worryingly high and graduation rates are still far too low. Students from under-resourced schools often lack the academic levels required at university, particular in maths, science and business-related fields.

Many universities have done a lot to bridge this, including running school programmes for maths, science and computer literacy in disadvantaged communities. Most of our universities have also introduced analytics platforms across all disciplines to identify students who are struggling academically, socially or psychologically, in order to address their needs at an early stage.

UP implements a multi-pronged strategy to help students to succeed and graduate in the specified time. The support system has proved to be highly successful and the overall module and examination pass rate is approximately 85.8%.

Student financial aid

Funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has helped increase student retention in the higher education sector, as many students did not have the finances to see them through their qualification. The 2015/16, the #FeesMustFall protests hastened the shift to fee-free higher education for students from families with earnings of less than R350 000 per year.

It is a priority that all deserving students should have access to high education. However, from a university financial sustainability perspective, student financial aid was escalated without aligned funding from the government. Huge pressure was put on higher education institutions from December 2017 when then President Jacob Zuma announced the move from a partially funded, loan-based NSFAS scheme to a fully-funded bursary scheme, which was partially funded by a declining block grant to universities.

To this day, the financial strain on the university system is immense. Adding to this is the funding crisis from what we call the ‘missing middle’ – students whose families earn above the R350 000 NSFAS threshold but who often battle to pay for university fees.

Global research collaborations

As the UP Council, we have had to intensely focus on fund-raising, and judiciously grow our research and industry partnerships, guided by UP’s Strategy 2025, which is all about being future-focused and sustainable. To attract top partners the University has worked hard to be a leading research-intensive institution, ranked in the top 1% internationally in 14 fields and with just over 70% of its academics holding doctoral degrees.

UP strongly supports the internationalisation of knowledge, and 44% of its research is conducted with international collaborators, predominantly focused on the pressing societal challenges expressed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Among others, these challenges include unemployment, poverty, the environment, climate change, food security, health and education.

The huge advantage of collaboration is that it enables universities to take research and innovation leaps by building on each other’s areas of expertise. These partnerships assist in developing highly skilled people of an international standard in diverse professional fields.

Looking ahead

Despite South Africa’s socio-economic crisis, the country’s 26-strong public university community has steered through many storms to get where we are today. Just four years ago we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic which threw society into chaos, and higher education institutions had to rapidly shift online. I am proud to say that UP was able to swiftly achieve this because of foresight and planning.

Entrepreneurship education is another significant shift that the university community needs to make. By now, all universities should be offering entrepreneurship programmes to all its student to help address the youth unemployment crisis in South Africa.

Universities today are thoroughly engaged with their communities in many different ways, from education and health to employment. Over 15 000 UP students participate in curricular community engagement activities with over 1 000 community partners in greater Pretoria.

The University works hard at inclusiveness in all its forms. In 2019, for example, UP passed an anti-discrimination policy which includes transforming procurement systems to ensure that small firms can also win contracts and that suppliers are diverse.

There is so much more to say as I end my time at UP. There are still many roads to travel but I will keep my relationship with the university sector and my UP family strong and engage with care and interest to see how the next few years unfold.

- Author Kuseni Dlamini

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