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Prioritise sustainability, and higher education thrives

In his 2017 budget speech, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan allocated an additional R5-billion to higher education over the next three years. In a tight fiscal climate this is good news, but the question remains: How sustainable will it make higher education, if the sector does not transform its own inefficiencies?

Sustainability underpins successful organisations. This is what higher education needs to focus on in a climate of economic austerity and increasing competition.

Sustainability requires public-funded higher education to run on tight business principles through better resource management and by ensuring that its outputs — research and graduates — advance social value and align with industry needs.

Countries thrive when supported by a well-resourced and value-creating higher education sector.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities provides a list of the top universities. It is not surprising that these are mostly in countries where government and the private sector invest heavily in higher education.

There are strong links between low investment in higher education and the moribund South African economy. The shortage of good leaders and efficient executives at state and private-sector strata is one outcome.

Quality, relevant education is the lifeblood of a sustainable society through skills development, which promotes economic growth and social stability. Entrepreneurship and ethics enable graduates to be of benefit to themselves and society. Graduates need to realise that globalisation means disruption of traditional income streams and a more competitive labour market.

We can unlock the value of higher education, but education must be seen as a vital resource for nation building and economic growth. The burning of schools in Vuwani in Limpopo last year and the damage done to property at various institutions during the #FeesMustFall campaign were misguided and brought harm to the cause and to society. Because of factional battles, education has become a pressure point to leverage for partisan gain and campuses have borne the brunt of these struggles.

South Africa’s success depends on the quality of its graduates. A well-educated nation can become what Japanese scientist Hiroshi Komiyama calls a “platinum society” — one that enjoys a high quality of life by living in harmony with each other and the natural environment.

This ideal can be pursued through a highly resourced education sector driven by competent executives, committed educators capable of deploying the best teaching methodologies and investment by government and industry.

Ensuring better academic quality requires that the public and private sectors work with higher education through advisory, funding and capacity-building engagements.

Many universities have skilled researchers and excellent facilities for research and development. These can be exploited for mutual benefit.

Achieving a platinum society requires a reimagining of higher education’s role in society. For this to happen, the radical transformation model should not be interpreted from a distributive perspective of how much can be gained from the public purse, but rather from a growth perspective that leverages better value from higher education’s assets. Sustainability is the key.

Rudi Kimmie is the manager of the Hub for the African City of the Future at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. These are his own views

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