Growth in student numbers and diversity, but not skills
Addressing the 9th Annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference in Durban last week, Council on Higher Education CEO-designate Professor Narend Baijnath said one major problem was the growing mismatch of graduates to the country’s skills demands.
“Topping this is scepticism from employers on whether universities are equipping graduates for a changing working world.”
Too many students were graduating and not finding work in the fields in which they had been trained, or were leaving university with qualifications not required in the current environment.
Baijnath assumes his position on 1 October.
“The days have long gone where people are employed and stay with that company for 30 to 40 years before retiring. Technology allows for people to work from wherever they are based and we need to be preparing graduates for this workplace approach,” he said.
The University of South Africa, or UNISA, registers around 22,000 first-year economics students yet the country has a dire shortage of economists, reflecting that these students were not continuing with studies in this field. Compounding the issue was a 50% drop-out rate.
Challenges of a digital world
Baijnath stressed that 21st century learning was imperative in a digital world that made instant communications possible.
The reality was it also “dislodged universities from being the founding and central point of knowledge” and allowed them to be “beaten by amateurs able to secure knowledge sharing via social media”.
The counter argument was that it was also forcing higher education educators to become better teachers. The days had also gone when universities could “throw academics before a class” and expect them to teach effectively.
This was particularly relevant in an environment where students could access external knowledge in digestible means like YouTube and Wikipedia, and were wholly submerged in a technological mindset. Unlike current academics, students have never known life without technology.
Baijnath said the focus of the Council on Higher Education was on boosting teaching and learning as well as the quality of higher education, but there were several factors pushing and pulling on that goal.
This included the rising number of students coming into universities, placing strain on resources and teaching staff. There were also unprecedented levels of regulations, compliance reporting and performance management requirements.
Into that arena, he added, the country was seeing an increase in the number of doctoral students from outside the country graduating from South African universities. “It means soon the new cadre of academia will be foreign nationals.”
Baijnath acknowledged that a key challenge facing the sector was the unrequited expectations of students looking for higher education qualifications as their ticket to prosperity. There were also unfulfilled expectations of staff dealing with increased demand, greater student numbers and fewer available resources.
Policy changes reflected increased alignment with national demographics and greater diversity in terms of class, linguistics, background, urban and rural origin, school experience and access to technology.
He admitted that these too impacted on daily activities for students and staff.
In the five years to 2013, there had been a 1% decrease in the number of white students registering for university, while African, coloured and Indian student numbers had risen by 3%, 1% and 4% respectively.
An average of 74% of students completed their courses, but there was disparity across universities with the top five achieving success rates over 80% and the others only 55%.
Baijnath believed the growth in enrolment figures was in line with capacity and the government’s ambition for widening access to higher education.
The largest growth had been with UNISA, where another 100,000 students had been registered, but he said within the next 10 to 15 years, the growth needed to also come from contact universities.
The role of technology
The government has a stated objective to boost open and distance learning students to 1.5 million in that time frame. While some of the growth would happen via UNISA, Baijnath believed there was scope for it to also come from traditional contact universities in line with advances in technology.
This allowed for online courses provided there was the requisite government commitment to expanding broadband access. While there had been decreases in the cost of broadband accessibility, this needed to be further explored.
The pull factors affecting higher education considered the technological advances in teaching and learning in line with expanded national broadband internet infrastructure.
However, he stressed that the working world was placing increasing demands on universities and their graduates, not assisted by the rapid changes in technology that swiftly rendered the infrastructure obsolete.
“Universities are spending vast amounts of money chasing rainbows, but the corollary is burgeoning international providers bringing competition directly to our doors. Without making the necessary changes, South African institutions could find themselves beaten by higher education institutions from outside our boundaries in attracting our students,” he said.
Currently the government was looking to connect the thousands of state-owned buildings nationally with high speed internet connectivity. This would enable every South African – regardless of their geography – access to First World internet connectivity within walking distance or short taxi drives from their homes.
Baijnath said this was one step in boosting education, stressing that if South Africa did not work towards developing technological savvy among the population, the country would continue being divided along class lines based on access to technology.