/ 20 October 2008

The rapid response to change

T here is a new “kid on the block” in the higher education sector in South Africa — universities of technology (UoTs). Although it is a new sub-sector in South Africa’s higher education, the philosophy underpinning UoTs are not entirely new.

Today’s UoTs developed from the technikons which have been around since 1979. Technikons grew out of the colleges of advanced technical education (Cates), which were established in 1967.

The focus of both technikons and the Cates was to prepare graduates for the world of work. Their certificate and diploma programmes were practical, vocational, industry-focused and career-oriented.

Students spent some time “on the job” during their studies which helped to make them work-ready by the time they graduated. This made technikon graduates highly employable. In 1993 technikons were awarded degree status, effectively making them universities.

In 2003 plans for a radical shift in the higher education landscape were announced. The 36 institutions (21 universities and 15 technikons) were reduced to 23 institutions through various mergers. In the reconfiguration some universities merged with universities, some universities merged with technikons (called “comprehensive” universities) and a few technikons merged with technikons. Some institutions remained untouched. The major feature of the reconfiguration was the redesignation of former technikons as “universities of technology”.

It is important to note that UoTs are not retreaded technikons. Although building on the practical, career-oriented, industry-focused foundations of the technikons, UoTs now operate at a higher level as required of a university, but without succumbing to academic drift and being just another “university”.

It is the same challenge faced by the Australian universities of technology, established 15 to 20 years ago, which arose out of the technical and further education colleges (Tafes) and mergers with institutes of technology. This was similar to the “new era” universities in the United Kingdom, which arose out of the polytechnics. These institutions had a strong focus on preparing graduates for the “world of work”.

Now the challenge is to continue preparing work-ready graduates, but with the high-quality, practical, analytical and money-making skills required by the modern-day economy.

What characterises these “new” universities is their flexibility and the ability to respond quickly to the changing demands of industry. These institutions do not have the burden of history and tradition as do centuries-old universities.

Although their origins contribute greatly to the strength of offerings and focus of South African education, that they arose out of the technikons is also a drawback. South Africans have not placed great value on technical and technology education or any form of higher education that focuses on the practical, applied and hands-on approach.

The apprenticeship system of the 20th century has disappeared, leaving a gaping hole in the skills base. One can hardly find a plumber, boilermaker, welder, fitter and turner, tooler or carpenter today.

Technical colleges have been merged and the sector reduced from 150 technical colleges to 50 further education and training colleges (FET). Despite massive recapitalisation, these colleges struggle to get competent students and attract and retain qualified staff.

Technical high schools are few in number and the vast majority of learners would prefer to continue in an academic stream up to grade 12 than go to a technical high school or FET college, followed by a qualification from a “technical” university.

This has left the country desperately short of artisans and people with the low-, medium and high-level skills and competencies that any growing and thriving economy needs. The creation of sector education and training authorities (Setas) and the learnership system to plug the gap have not been successful in providing people who can take the economy forward. In fact, despite massive unemployment and large-scale poverty, South Africa is a net importer of skills.

For any country to survive in a knowledge economy, it needs a spread of skills and competencies. No economy or society can rise to great heights without university graduates with high-level theoretical, logical, scientific and thinking skills. But, equally important, people who take the fundamental and the theoretical and apply it for the benefit of society are also needed.

As an example: the PhD candidate from a university will be engaged in advancing knowledge by thinking about some of the unsolved challenges relating to, for example, space travel. In other words, philosophising until a new piece of knowledge is resolved.

So the PhD student will investigate the mathematics of how to send a spacecraft to another star, but the PhD student does not actually know how to make the spacecraft. This is where a doctor of technology candidate at a UoT comes into the picture (the one who will apply the findings of the PhD candidate and design, build and get the spaceship to its destination).

Teaching technology at a UoT implies an understanding of the application of the subject in the real world. So there is nothing “lower-grade” about a UoT. There should be equal acceptance of both types of institutions, degrees and candidates, because both have an equally important, complementary and symbiotic role to play in the development and advancement of humankind.

Although a unitary system, the diversity in South Africa’s higher education system should form the basis of its strength. This diversity exists not only in the three main categories of higher education institutions in South Africa (UoTs, comprehensive universities and traditional universities), but also within each of these three categories.

Institutions such as UoTs, which specialise in making knowledge useful, will constitute a dynamic and excellent higher education system for South Africa along with the traditional and comprehensive universities. The difference in focus and ethos between UoTs and traditional universities will not only bring wider diversity into the higher education scene but will also contribute meaningfully to greater technological transfer and international competitiveness.

Professor Roy du Pré is vice chancellor and principal at Durban University of Technology and chair of the South African Technology Network