A niche opportunity

Changes in the international economic, scientific and technological landscape have had significant implications for higher education and these are evident in the issues that now feature in higher education policy debates.

Increasing national participation rates in higher education, affordability and responsiveness are key concerns, not only in South Africa but internationally.

Governments invest more in higher education but at the same time would like to see a return on the investment. The issue of development of high-level skills and the role of higher education institutions in this regard is at the forefront of the discussion on South Africa as an emerging economy.

It is in this changing context that debates about institutional types and differing missions have assumed greater prominence in the arena of higher education policy.

This differentiation is not only a matter of variation of institutional types in national higher education systems, but also a diversity in institutional types.

The issue of opportunities for universities of technology should be located in the broader context of economic and technology changes in recent decades and the impact that these had on our understanding of knowledge as a driver of innovation and economic growth.

The former technikon sector in South Africa, which constitutes the ancestry of universities of technology, developed a strong reputation for specific achievements, notably the production of students who were well-grounded in technical skills and who had quality workplace training.

These graduates were highly valued by industry and they typically successfully secured employment by the time of graduation or shortly thereafter. The “work-readiness” of such graduates was frequently noted in sectors such as engineering.

Today the gap between the graduate and the workplace requirements is such that a distinction is often made between having a qualification and being employable. Several major companies report spending increasing amounts of money on training to reduce the time lag between graduation and employability. Given the heritage of our universities of technology, this is a grouping of institutions that is well-positioned to address this gap.

As we re-assess our curricula and qualifications in relation to the demand for high-level skills and work-readiness, we must caution against focusing exclusively on the needs of major corporations. The importance of small, medium and micro enterprises in our emerging workplace must be taken into consideration and so too the concomitant requirement for entrepreneurial skills. This could be embraced as a niche opportunity for the universities of technology.

The shortage of technicians and technologists in the medical, agricultural and engineering fields have been identified as a critical constraint to economic growth. There is some debate about the definitions of these occupational categories but it is generally agreed in many countries that technologists are synonymous with applied science or engineering applications. Regardless of the precise definition, the training of technologists and applied science may be seen by universities of technology as a unique opportunity.

Workplace exposure and training as a requirement of a qualification provides advantages to the student by enhancing her/his preparedness for the world of work and also opens up opportunities for the student to access future employment.

The advantage is not only for the student, however, but also for the academics because creating opportunities for workplace training requires an ongoing relationship between the institution at its various organisational levels — faculty, school and department — and industry. This relationship is a point of leverage for discussions on research and development projects.

Many of the mission statements of universities of technology refer to applied research and technological development as specialised areas and there are projects that are good examples of such research.

But it is important to note that this is not a domain exclusive to universities of technology for many reasons. Internationally the boundary between basic and applied, fundamental and strategic, research and development has become increasingly blurred such that many so-called traditional universities now conduct technological and industry-driven research where the emphasis is on technological innovation and product development.

But this should not be viewed as a constraining factor for universities of technology because as a national higher education system we need to expand and improve our performance in technological innovation.

By exploring the opportunities for the development of strong universities of technology some of the main work we undertake will have to focus on the development of appropriate performance indicators and benchmarks.

The one area that we must investigate further is the assessment of the impact on society. This is difficult and complex to measure but it matters most to the public to which we are accountable. Impact is a component of the overriding criterion in all we do and that is quality.

This is a shortened version of a speech delivered by Dr Cheryl de la Rey, chief executive of the Council on Higher Education, at the recent South African Technology Network conference, which focused on the nature and characteristics of South African universities of technology. These are De la Rey’s own views

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