Academics gather to discuss South Africa’s university of the future

Professor Wim de Villiers, Stellenbosch University’s vice-chancellor. (Stefan Els/University of Stellenbosch)

Professor Wim de Villiers, Stellenbosch University’s vice-chancellor. (Stefan Els/University of Stellenbosch)

Professor Wim de Villiers, Stellenbosch University’s vice-chancellor, told delegates attending the inaugural higher education conference in Pretoria that universities have to think “very deeply” about their continued existence and make major changes in order to adapt to new circumstances.

De Villiers was delivering an address marking the beginning of the three day conference organised by Universities South Africa (USAf) — a membership organisation representing South Africa’s universities — under the theme “Reinventing SA’s Universities for the Future”.

De Villiers said USAf is hoping to make the conference a regular feature as a gathering where debate about the future of universities needs to take place.

He said universities need to talk about wide-ranging topics such as the necessity of a university qualification in securing employment, the cost of higher education, online knowledge-sharing by educators and the perceived exclusivity and elitism of tertiary education.

“Does a university education guarantee good employment? Are they not too expensive? Why does everyone go to university if the world’s best professors are sharing their knowledge online for free?  And are [universities] not too elitist and exclusive? So universities have to think very deeply about their continued existence and make major changes in order to adapt to new circumstances,” he said.

De Villiers said universities might find it difficult to make changes as they may create a level of uncertainty, but said they still cannot shy away from change because universities play an important role in society and have a vital contribution to make to national development.

Universities need to adapt, be flexible and resilient, De Villiers said. Leaders in higher education must create a culture of innovation and continuous learning, he added.

“We need to engage in a new kind of leadership: one that takes an organic approach to grow change and not a mechanical approach to manufacture change. An organic approach to grow change, because meaningful change is all about a cultural institution and the culture is all about the people. We need to entrust the people we work with, we need to empower them, we need to recognise their efforts to be creative and the change that can result from there that is likely to be so much more spectacular,” De Villiers told attendees.

He said it was important for the country’s universities to change their institutional culture to better accommodate a new generation of students and staff.

“I am excited about this conference because it provides a strategic opportunity for the higher education sector and its stakeholders to critically reflect on what it will take to reinvent South Africa’s universities for the future.”

The more than 300 attendees from across 26 public universities and private institutions will also be grappling with issues including student funding, higher education funding and ethics in research publishing.

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe is the education reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She is an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered both basic and higher education in South Africa. Her coverage includes #FeesMustFall, the case of Michael Komape and education in rural areas.  Read more from Bongekile Macupe

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