Universities of technology – Looking back, and forward

“Looking back and going forward” proved to be an apt theme for the Seventh Annual International South African Technology Network – SATN – three-day conference held last month. The network’s members not only reflected on best practice and learning models emanating from their institutions since they were granted university of technology status 10 years ago, but also interrogated future opportunities to be pursued in teaching and learning.

Vice-chair of SATN and vice-chancellor of the Vaal University of Technology, Professor Irene Moutlana, described the conference, which drew over 180 delegates from the higher education sector, South African industry representatives and government, as an important “milestone”.

“Not only is the sector 10 years old, but we are starting to see the relationships we nurtured and identities we crafted as universities of technology starting to bear fruit,” she told University World News.

Membership of SATN includes all South African universities of technology, and the Polytechnic of Namibia as an associate member.

The body was formed in 2006 to provide support to the then newly-created universities of technology during a period marked by a fluid policy environment and a radical shift from a so-called binary system of higher education to a unitary system.

As SATN chairperson Professor Mashupye Kgaphola states in the recently published 2014-19 SATN Strategic Plan, there was no blueprint available at the time that could readily delineate the shape, role and function of a university of technology.

According to Moutlana, the SATN model was adapted from the Australian Technology Network after a fact-finding mission to Australia by a delegation of South African vice-chancellors in 2005.

Although originally envisaged as a sub-structure of Higher Education South Africa, the vice-chancellors' association, the organisation operates parallel to but not in competition with the umbrella body.

Valuable role

Since its formation, Moutlana said the network had performed a valuable role in terms of providing a forum to discuss higher education issues relevant to universities of technology and serving as a strong advocacy body for the needs, interests and purposes of the institutions to government, industry and other relevant bodies.

It had over the years produced a range of comprehensive position papers grappling with such complex issues as the place and role of universities of technology in South Africa, institutional differentiation and workplace learning, among other subjects.

The network was also a site of learning for its member institutions, according to Professor Tjama Tjivikua, rector of the Polytechnic of Namibia, which joined SATN in September 2010.

“All institutions are historically different so the network helps us to learn from each other. To collaborate and share knowledge is easier to do among universities of technology as opposed to traditional universities,” he told University World News.

With the passage of time, which has seen the network host seven conferences that bear witness to a significant consolidation of the sector, the conference has turned away from early themes grappling with institutional identity to reflect a greater concern for institutional “fitness for purpose”.

Hence the focus on the quality of teaching and learning, which also coincides with the Council on Higher Education’s shift from institutional audits to the Quality Enhancement Project, with a view to improving student success rates.

According to Moutlana, universities of technology have a strong competitive edge over traditional universities in the 21st century.

One of these was the focus – both in the mode of delivery of courses and content – on technology; and the other was the strong emphasis on entrepreneurialism, work integrated learning and applied research.

All these emphases meant greater degrees of employability for graduates – a highly sought-after commodity in today’s economy, she said.

“We don’t stop at publication when it comes to research,” said Moutlana. “We have a solution-driven approach to society’s problems, so we ensure that research moves along the value chain towards commercialised technology transfer, application and a possible patent.”

According to Moutlana, the sector had adopted the concept of the triple helix in its approach to partnerships: a three-way relationship between universities, government and industry that acknowledged the increasingly prominent role of educational institutions in a knowledge-based society.

She said that although branding and marketing of universities of technology remains one of the “biggest challenges”, the sector had nevertheless made progress in forging partnerships and acquiring industry support.

Links between academia and industry

In a lively session on the issue of graduate employability, chaired by programme director Professor Anshu Padayachee, it was clear that the lines of communication between industry and academia had been opened.

But a common approach to the way forward was less obvious.

Wiseman Madinane, executive manager of Transnet Freight Rail, said there was a “misalignment” between industry and the tertiary education sector, which was causing an expensive “replication” of training centres.

“Between Eskom and the transport industry, billions are being spent on training and development but to run a university of technology also costs money. Why does industry have to replicate what we already have in terms of educational capacity? We need closer collaboration in order to utilise the resources already there,” he said.

Taking a swipe at those institutions destabilised by student protests, he said: “If a candidate comes from a university where there are students destroying property, it does not help that candidate.”

Dr Raymond Patel, CEO of the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA – Sector Education and Training Authority – said there was a need for industry to embrace the idea of investment in people. “Business is not only about profit, it’s about developing your society,” he said.

“What we need to see is how industry together with universities can develop an education system that benefits the country. We have to start challenging the system. We need universities to reach out to industry.

“Why can’t it be the Durban University of Technology that sets up and runs a training school? We need a purpose-focused qualification in a geographical area that responds to the economy. Research should bring about change in our society,” he said.

In his closing remarks, Kgaphola said SATN had taken note of the comments made by industry in the panel discussion and by business leaders during a breakfast briefing held earlier in the conference.

“We have a broad picture of the conversation we need to have,” he said, indicating that the SATN board would “make a move” in the New Year.