In a recent edition of the Mail & Guardian, you reported on the resignation of Professor Gordon Zide (“VUT vice-chancellor retires early”, October 18). The article also characterised the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) as an institution struggling to position itself at a particular historical juncture as it moves into an era of digitisation, interconnectivity, virtualisation and automation.
It is my sense that such a claim warrants a response, particularly from an insider. Universities essentially provide research and skills development. All universities in South Africa started off as providers of technical ability, especially to the mining sector, at the turn of the 20th century. VUT, like other technical colleges, was founded in the mid-1960s. Its mandate was to provide particular skill sets for the intermediate level of the economy as economic activity began to shift from the industrial age towards the post-industrial dispensation.
The distinction between these economic paradigms is important to better understand how they influenced choices about which skill sets should be developed at these institutions and to what particular end. For instance, it was justifiable in the 1960s, during the industrial age, for technical colleges to develop certain skill sets but the development of these skill sets under materially different economic conditions became untenable.
This resulted in the name change of such institutions, as the technical colleges of the 1960s became technikons in the 1980s when the advent of the post-industrial era started to affect how the workplace was structured and demanded new sets of skills. The industrial age required minimal technical knowledge and less than 1% of the workforce needed more than one year of training. The rest of the workforce were semi-illiterate cheap labour drawn, in the South African context, mostly from Africans who lived in townships.
This explains why technical colleges such as VUT (the Vaal Triangle Technical College at the time) serviced mostly white students, as they would be the ones to assume middle-management technical and engineering positions. But the post-industrial era that began in the early 1970s required a different set of skills. Many jobs were being taken over by big machines, which marked the onset of production automation. This reality of technological advances and their direct effect on employment patterns has generally been ignored in developing students’ skills. This economic development resulted in huge swathes of unskilled labourers losing their jobs.
This era marked the rise of service and knowledge industries that created new employment opportunities but also demanded new, multiple skill sets, and so the period of reskilling, multi-skilling and upskilling began. In response, technical colleges became technikons to meet the demands of the new economic dispensation. VUT became the Vaal Triangle Technikon, based on the pedagogical model of knowledge and experiential learning, as well as recruitment of industry experts as lecturers. The post-apartheid era sought to increase access to higher education to previously disadvantaged groups through massification. This allowed them to gain certain skill sets sellable to the labour market as apartheid economic activity — a huge resource accumulation project — shifted towards serving a democratic dispensation.
The technikon sector experienced a serious identity crisis and various models were mooted until they became universities of technology in 2004. The aim was for these institutions to offer technical skills through a pedagogical model that was touted as better and more practical. However, the conversion into universities of technology did not include any particular specifics about the required skill sets to feed the labour market. At the same time, economic activity was experiencing a new shift towards productive diversity that demanded a lifelong learning approach for workers (new and existing) to keep up with rapidly changing technology and the nature of the workplace.
In all of these changes, the fundamental neoliberal plinth of the economic activity was generally ignored, as higher education institutions increasingly became implicated in generating income inequality and a socially unjust democratic society. The increasing casualisation of work was not significantly problematised and critiqued, although some academic voices emerged alongside those of the workers’ unions in this respect. But although these voices have been able to slow down the march of neoliberalism, they have not stopped it.
The hegemony and ideological stances of the neoliberal economic activity remain largely intact. They increasingly leverage technological advances such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things and big data analytics. All of these technologies vitiate the human role in economic activity and thus render the project of skills development in higher education complex, uncertain and highly problematic. This has given rise to an increase in graduate unemployment and underemployment.
However, the myth that certain specific skills, based on traditional competency requirements, are central to the 21st-century labour markets persists. In the 21st-century, human-based economic activity is dwindling fast. The persistence of the myth that acquiring certain competencies will help our students to secure employment is unfortunate and appears to serve the interests of the knowledge worker in higher education. The higher education knowledge worker is a threatened species as everything that defines their work is under extreme pressure. They are expected to deliver measurable results, at the same time that their resources are reduced. Research is no longer the sole preserve of the academic worker, who is also no longer the source and custodian of knowledge. Instead machine-based, online offerings are increasing and chatbots, as well as other artificial-intelligence-enabled technologies, are taking over all existing knowledge offerings.
The march towards artificial-intelligence-enabled personalised learning and big data research is inexorable and only those institutions that adapt to this developing dispensation will survive the digital era. I have been arguing since 2013 that VUT should change its current character and march towards becoming an entrepreneurial university. I define an entrepreneurial university as an institution that creates conditions in which students and staff can become the best they can be through developing critical thinking skills, creativity, innovation, emotional intelligence and complex problem-solving abilities. These skills would enable students and staff to become capital value creators, not only for the institution but also for themsleves. A big chunk of students, and even staff, can then leave university as independent entities capable of participating in the mainstream economic activity as active actors rather than as acted-upon workers.
A colleague and I have already proved the effectiveness of this approach through developing some lecturers as company consultants, for which they have received handsome rewards. My sense is that unless we refocus our energies on what matters, VUT could forfeit the opportunity of becoming a leading institution in its sector. In becoming an entrepreneurial university, VUT will do what it is good at, given its staff complement and student composition, with the latter drawn mostly from lower socioeconomic brackets.
There may, thus, be some degree of legitimacy in some of the issues Zide raised in his resignation and the university could benefit from holding genuine and robust debates around its current state and future possibilities. In this way, the interest of students and society will trump any other considerations.
Dr Teboho Pitso works for the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Vaal University of Technology