The role of universities in averting disaster

We are facing a looming disaster in the South African education sector. Unless we do something about the poor quality of our basic education system, we will suffer the consequences because our universities will become unsustainable. This is the deduction of Professor Herman van Schalkwyk, rector at the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University. He was speaking at a round table event held in Cape Town.

Higher education can contribute to solving the problems and challenges that South Africa faces, but the sector is dependent on the optimal functioning of the school system. “The World Economic Forum ranks South Africa as a shocking 133rd out of 142 countries for the overall quality of its education system. We are already seeing what that means in practical terms,” he said.

“This year, for the first time, we have classes that are not filled to capacity. The problem isn’t a lack of applications. The problem is that the students who apply to study do not meet the basic requirements. Maths literacy is no substitute for mathematics.” The consequences are far reaching and will impact South Africa’s future development, he said.

Van Schalkwyk warned that if our universities are unable to fulfil their role in producing high-level skills and cutting-edge research, we will be unable to respond to a changing industrial base and will fail to meet the demands for new knowledge-intensive production and services, or to address the problems of social development.

“I am tired of hearing South Africans complaining,” he said. “We need to focus on the future instead of the past. We need to be asking what we can do as individuals, as companies and as institutions to make a difference.”

North-West University is doing what it can to meet the challenges through more than 300 community-based projects. They include partnering with schools through its Ikataleng and Sediba projects and with the Seth school, which it founded last year to prepare secondary school students who show promise in maths and science for university prior to their matriculation.

Van Schalkwyk believes that universities have a responsibility to:

• Raise educational levels to create a quality workforce; • Improve learning and teaching from pre-school through graduate school;

• Provide training and support where you need it, when you need it; • Provide lifelong learning opportunities;

• Identify the needs of business and industry;

• Take strong and visible roles in regional initiatives;

• Disseminate research and promote technology transfer;

• Enhance the technology infrastructure;

• Promote liveable communities; and

• Employ a diverse workforce.

“We are certainly facing a looming disaster,” he concludes. “But it is a disaster that can be averted through proper cooperation and willing leaders and the development of a socially aware and responsive society. Those are the values that we are instilling.”


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