University of Venda: A fertile environment for fresh ideas

The University of Venda (Univen), in the fast-growing town of Thohoyandou and surrounded by rural townships such as Golgotha, Manini, Block F and Block D, is set in the heart of Limpopo’s rich agricultural sector.

The area’s red soil stains the pavement from the university entrance to the main administration office and there are more trees than buildings on the campus. All this seems to provide a fertile environment for new ideas and a capacity for change.

The mostly single-storey buildings also give the rural-based campus a homestead look.

I hurry past friendly faces and head for the main administration block for my 10am appointment with Professor Peter Mbati, the vice-chancellor of Univen.

Rural-based universities continue to be hampered by a lack of resources, which restricts their attempts to meet the challenges of development and to deliver on the core business of teaching, learning, research and community engagement. As one of the two rural universities providing higher education in Limpopo, Univen finds itself in the same quagmire.

But I am here because the university is re-examining itself—or, in more formal public relations speak, it is rebranding itself.

Since its days as a homeland university, Univen has been increasing student admissions, to the point that its capacity has come under pressure.
The lecturer/student ratio at Univen is high, with 11 000 students and only 710 staff members, of which 343 are academics and 367 administrative and service staff.

“Our transformation journey from a homeland university to a comprehensive institution [one that offers both university and technikon-type programmes] has taken long,” says Mbati. “It’s a journey; we are not there yet.”

Univen “provides much-needed skills and gives access to people who would have found it difficult to get into a university,” he says. But the ever-increasing demand for university education has put pressure on the university’s infrastructure and “we can’t take everyone”.

Univen’s rural environment presents a wealth of opportunities for research but, says Mbati, “we are unable to scientifically exploit quality research relevant to academic and community engagement activities, and the absence of appropriate infrastructure is a huge impediment to our endeavour to conduct relevant quality research”.

Univen’s problems
Many of the problems Univen faces stem from its location—inadequate internet access, deteriorating infrastructure and an inability to attract enough high-quality academics. The water supply is also a problem, although there are water tanks on campus. “The municipality has rations in terms of water supply, so it’s not the fault of the university that we are experiencing water shortages,” says Mbati. “We are based in a water-scarce area and we need to produce the kind of skills and expertise that will help us in this area.”

Thando Ndlovu, a final-year business management student, tells me: “Water on this campus is not reliable. When there is no water, we have to get water from the tanks. But they run dry very quickly and we have to source water from the fire extinguishers.”

Academics and students alike are angry about the inadequate availability of internet services. “The university is wireless,” says Mbati, “and we have a problem with people who download music, movies and pornography.”

Academics complain that the problem with internet access is a setback in performing their duties. “Just when will this university have a functional internet connection?” asks music lecturer Geoff Mapaya. “We should be ashamed that even spaza shops are doing much better compared to us in this regard. Can you imagine the stress among Univen staff caused by this frustrating, snail’s pace connection?”

He adds: “And, I guess, because everybody is quiet about it, nothing will be done.”

Mapaya’s sentiments are shared by Joe Hlomuka, an applied mathematics lecturer. “I moaned to my head of department, only to discover that we were both in the same boat. For the past three weeks I have not been able to download any research papers. Our submission—my master’s student and I—to the South African Mathematics Journal is still in abeyance.”

But help might be on the way, says the head of information and technology at Univen, Joel Vele: “Something is going to happen soon to address the problem of bandwidth. Telkom has also promised to ship new equipment to upgrade the link to 30Mbps [megabits per second].”

Economic development
Against all odds, Univen is a catalyst in terms of economic development in both the region and the country. “We have become a reputable national asset through our niche in agriculture, environmental sciences, community health and natural sciences,” says Mbati.

This reflects Univen’s commitment “to be at the centre of tertiary education for rural and regional development in Southern Africa”, he says.

“We offer problem-oriented, community-based learning and a project-based curriculum with a strength in nurturing under-prepared students into nationally competitive graduates,” he says.

A new corporate identity “will herald a new era in the university’s future”, says Mbati. The new university logo has five elements—a protective shield, embracing arms, an African pot, an open book and a vertical indicator.

“The new corporate image portrays Univen as a modern, forward-thinking institution that answers the call of its stakeholders to provide relevant services to the communities it serves,” says Mbati.

Pointing out that “there are certain historical things I cannot fix in a day”, he calls for the support of all Univen stakeholders, saying: “Join me on this exciting journey and be a brand ambassador with me.”

Mbati believes that the university is “repositioning itself in accordance with the social and economic needs of South Africa and the international community”. International partnerships and link-ups are now a priority and Univen is exploring collaborations with higher-education institutions in South Korea.

Already, staff and students from Univen’s Centre of Rural Development and Poverty Alleviation, the school of agriculture, the Vuwani Science Centre and the community engagement directorate participate in the Eastern/Southern African and the Virginia Networks and Association/University of Virginia (Esavana) programme. The Esavana programme is offered through the University of Virginia (UVA) and focuses on the intersection of peoples, ethics, cultures, and the environment of Eastern and Southern Africa.

“This collaboration provides students with opportunities to acquire skills to address water and sanitation problems in their communities,” says Mbati.

This year the Water and Health in Limpopo project, a collaboration between UVA and Univen, resulted in the establishment of the Mukondeni Pottery Co-operative, a ceramic water filter factory in Mashamaba village near Thohoyandou. Non-governmental organisations and local communities were also involved in developing a sustainable local business that will produce affordable ceramic water filters for home use.

Making agriculture ‘cool’
Agriculture is one of Univen’s niche areas and fits in with Limpopo’s development needs. But the university is having a hard time attracting academics and students to agriculture because it is not a “cool” career choice.

Humbulani Masikhwa, a fourth-year student of agricultural economics, opted for agriculture because of her family. “I was only following in the footsteps of my parents who are both farmers,” she says.

But now she says she has been exposed to many careers in agriculture and wants to study further. “People think agriculture is a dirty career and they are not aware that there are other opportunities in agriculture rather than farming,” she says.

Masikhwa is involved in a community project at Levhubu village, a small community on the outskirts of Thohoyandou that recently benefited from a government land restitution programme.

“I am helping the community come up with ways to utilise the land effectively,” she says.

Isaac Ndou says agriculture was not his first choice. “I did not meet all the requirements to study medicine at the University of Pretoria,” he says.

Ndou is carrying out research on a new dam built by the local municipality in Mulendane village. “My research is to establish how the community and livestock farmers can benefit from the dam,” says Ndou. “It’s unfortunate that when people think of agriculture they think of going to a farm and ploughing. They don’t know there is economics and marketing in agriculture.”

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