Re-branding ‘second class’ universities of technology

More than 10 years after its creation, the university of technology sector in South Africa continues to be dogged by a crisis of identity and perceptions of second-class status. Recently appointed chair of the South African Technology Network or SATN, Lourens van Staden, says he hopes to lead a drive to re-brand the sector.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 9th annual SATN conference held in Cape Town from 12-14 October, the straight-talking vice-chancellor of Tshwane University of Technology told University World News that mission drift remains the “greatest point of contention” within the sector.

Earlier in the day, during a plenary discussion on sustainability, he had expressed the problem as follows: “We’re not sure who we are; as a sector we are hard on ourselves, but we are below par when it comes to third-stream income and I ascribe it to [mission] drift. We need to be known for something… Protests?… Or what?”

Against the backdrop of #FeesMustFall protests which necessitated the periodic absence from the meeting of some vice-chancellors – including Prins Nevhutalu of Cape Peninsula University of Technology, co-hosts of the conference – Van Staden’s reference to protests was received with rueful amusement.

But the figures were sobering. Citing data from a recent PwC report, Van Staden said that the University of the Witwatersrand – a traditional, research-intensive university – attracted 40% of its income through third stream income, while universities of technology attracted only around 15%.

Neglected roles

“This is despite the fact that universities of technology are supposed to be closer to commerce and industry and have more opportunities. The role is neglected,” he told University World News during an interview.

Another neglected role was professional development. “We are in an ideal position to assist government, commerce and industry with continuous education, but this is another neglected function,” he said.

Holding a PhD in curriculum science, Van Staden perhaps understands better than most the importance of teaching and learning outcomes. “We need to be clearer about what universities of technology are achieving and we need to determine the kind of graduate attributes of our students, which are not the same as traditional universities,” he said.

“We train technicians and technologists, not engineers, and not artisans. We need to go back to the drawing board and perhaps admit that what the former technikons [polytechnics] did was not so bad. The [Higher Education] Act says that technikons are now universities, but these definitions are lacking depth and are outdated,” he said.

Sector differentiation

Established in 2006, SATN falls within Universities South Africa or USAf, the umbrella body for all 26 public universities.

However, according to Van Staden the sub-grouping was needed to “differentiate ourselves as a sector” and out of a recognition that universities of technology – many of which were products of mergers – were on a different developmental level, particularly with respect to their research capacity, compared with their more established traditional counterparts.

“We were lost in USAf in terms of our identity, contribution and human resource development,” said Van Staden. “And we didn’t want to be seen as cry-babies.”

“We don’t want to break away from USAf, but we have to acknowledge we have a different focus to traditional universities,” he said.

“Some of the universities in this country are over 100 years old; they are clear in terms of their function. Universities of technology offer work-integrated learning. There is no general formative training and all education is geared towards careers. On average we are 10 years old, so we need to do lots of development work as a sector to establish ourselves.”

A range of challenges

Van Staden said universities of technology needed to re-build their reputation. “In my view, they are seen by the public as inferior, second-class,” he said.

This is despite the fact that an institution like Tshwane University of Technology, with 60,000 students on 11 campuses and an engineering faculty that with 10,000 students has more students than some entire universities. There is also a business school offering Master of Business Administration degrees.

“We are set to graduate 12,000 students this year, and we have more research outputs and SARChI [South African Research Chairs Initiative] chairs than some traditional universities. But our branding is weak,” he said.

While Tshwane University of Technology is in a relatively strong position, however, there are other universities of technology that are much weaker. “We need to talk about how we can elevate the lowest in our collective,” Van Staden stressed. “A chain is as strong as its weakest link and we are not all strong.”

There are other challenges facing the sector, one of which is a lack of leadership – not in the sense of quality, but quantity. “There is a literal lack of leaders; suitable applicants are not roaming the streets, it has to be said. At many of our institutions, the position of vice-chancellor is vacant or is shortly to become vacant. As a sector we need more stability.”

Over the next two years, he hopes that a new stream of vice-chancellors will be in place and progress is being made in this regard.

Mr Fixit

Known as Mr Fixit in the higher education sector, Van Staden was appointed as administrator of Walter Sisulu University in 2011 by the minister of higher education and training. There, he spearheaded a successful turnaround strategy for the ailing institution, earning respect from a wide range of stakeholders.

As SATN chair, he is determined to apply the same passion for ‘fixing’ the fundamentals and to champion a ‘back to basics’ approach. He consistently uses the word ‘budget’ in reference to any future plans.

Van Staden said he intends to revise the SATN strategic plan and reformulate it with fewer goals and focused on basic concepts. Importantly, there will be a budget linked to each objective and a significant emphasis on positive marketing and rebranding.

He also intends to re-look at the terms of reference of the internal strategy groups so as to ensure they facilitate key strategic goals. “And they must have a budget attached,” he adds.

He has in mind a proposal to change the name of SATN. “The current name does not speak directly to universities of technology. And I think we should bring into the fold similar institutions in Southern Africa,” he said. Currently the only non-South African member of the network is the Namibia University of Science and Technology.

Van Staden, who has a two-year term as chair, with the possibility of a further two, admits the position gives him no real power to force change. “We are a collegial body. I have no special powers, but I have my influence and experience,” he said.

“My strength is fixing things. I’ve done work in the past to fix universities in terms of developing and implementing turnaround strategies. I have experience and passion and I’m up to the challenges, provided I have the support of my team.”