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SA universities battle for relevance as global competition intensifies

University of Cape Town

University of Cape Town

With the growing emphasis on the need for a knowledge-based economy, as mapped out in the government’s National Development Plan (NDP), and with the emergence of huge, open, online courses by leading universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, South African universities have to question themselves about the true value and relevance of their qualifications and research outputs, says the vice-chancellor of North West University (NWU), Prof Theuns Eloff.

Traditionally universities have a dual business model: teaching and research.

These outcomes should result in the implementation of the acquired expertise, either commercially or through community programmes.

Commercially this can unfold through patents and spin-off companies. The degree of success in these results may be considered as indicative of an institution’s level of competitiveness.

Eloff regards competitiveness as a concept that is applicable to any enterprise and should also be applicable to higher education. He says for a South African university to be globally competitive, it should be able to:

• attract the best academics in a specific field from anywhere in the world;

• attract good students internationally, especially postgraduates;

• produce graduates who can work anywhere in the world; and

• produce research that is internationally recognised (by being cited by others).

South Africa has a number of universities that are achieving this. In a recent presentation to the Parliamentary Committee for Higher Education and Training, the Finance and Fiscal Commission cited seven universities as leading contributors to the knowledge economy — Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Pretoria, North-West University, Wits and KwaZulu-Natal.

But not all South African universities can compete with their much richer, older and better endowed counterparts in the world’s developed economies.

“All South African universities should, however, be competitive in terms of the quality education they offer for a specific price, the high level research they produce and the relevant patents or products they deliver to society at large,” says Eloff.

So how are local universities doing?

The sector produces more than 160,000 graduates and diplomats annually. “The NWU’s share of this is 15,000, half first-time entrants into the job market, and half better qualified professionals already in employment. This is a substantial contribution to growth and development,” says Eloff.

Research outputs by universities have increased by 55% from 2005 to 2011, most of which are published in international journals. “In the case of the NWU, the increase was 125%.”

But SA lags in the production of PhDs. The higher education sector produced 1,576 in 2011, which is only 28 per million of the population, against the NDP’s stretch target of 100 per million, and the US with 200.

In response to the NDPs’ target of 1,62-million students in higher education by 2030, several South African universities have developed a hybrid teaching model to include off-campus students.

Eloff says government policy and the environment it helps to create can be either a facilitating or inhibiting factor.

“Our basic education system is close to dysfunctional.

This puts more pressure on academic staff. It also takes an inordinate amount of time to get new qualifications agreed by government organs, sometimes more than two years.

This is unacceptable in a fast-changing world. South Africa’s universities cannot escape the challenges posed by global competition, but the first and basic emphasis should be to be effective and competitive on a national level.”

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