Producing the right kind of student – A moral imperative

The creation of jobs for young people was as much a moral imperative as it was an economic imperative, according to Durban University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Thandwa Mthembu. In an interview with University World News, he called on universities to “think differently” about the kind of education they were giving their students. “What’s the value of a degree that can’t be used?” he asked.

“It’s like the issue of land. Everyone wants land in South Africa, but land means nothing if it cannot be turned into something of value,” he said.

His comments were made against the backdrop of the Durban University of Technology graduation ceremonies earlier this year. Mthembu said he was struck by how many students – even those who had graduated cum laude – told him they were still looking for work.

“Our economy is not using the students we are producing. We need to think differently,” he said.

'Something innovative’

But while universities had a responsibility towards their students, he said students also had to take responsibility for shaping the future in a more constructive way. Mthembu said it was time for “something innovative from our young people” who were in danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” in their quest for transformation of the higher education sector – expressed over the past two years through the #FeesMustFall movement and the drive to “decolonise” university education in South Africa.

We need a “more sophisticated way of dealing with the past”, he said. “We have a unique history but we cannot lump everything together as oppressive when that is not necessarily the case … I’m of the view that leaders need to analyse situations carefully and chart a way forward that eschews the terrible parts of our heritage but retains the good, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

“In addition to a legitimate cry out for affordable university education, the #FeesMustFall campaign has also become a fight against authority and hierarchy; it is a power struggle,” he said. “But, like the Arab Spring experience, we cannot have change of authority and hierarchy without thinking about what will replace it," he said.

Looking backwards, not forwards

“Yes, there are lessons and legacies from the past, but what about the contribution of young people, especially university students now? Who else can we trust with the role of critical thinking and knowledge production? But they are looking backwards into the past instead of finding innovations that take them forwards regardless of the past and even the present,” he said.

The interview with University World News followed his inauguration as the new head of the Durban University of Technology or DUT, when he delivered a speech in which he called for a ‘qualitative’ rather than ‘quantitative’ approach to transformation of higher education and argued that a failure to prioritise excellence has created a situation in which South African universities run the risk of ‘deformation’ rather than ‘transformation’.

The speech – compiled with input from his six daughters – was designed to deliver a “deliberate message” regarding the dangers of “looking backwards rather than forwards” and forcing through change without putting in place an appropriate alternative, he told University World News.

Entitled “DUT: Transform, Upscale and Develop”, the speech touched on the two “topical national challenges” of decolonisation and the #FeesMustFall movement. In it Mthembu said the future development of South Africa depends on a shift away from quantitative transformation in higher education towards qualitative transformation that will ensure that equity is merged with excellence.

Black economic empowerment deals

“Counting matric pass rates is not qualitative transformation.” Neither was counting black economic empowerment deals or the number of black staff employed at a university, he said.

“After all the counting of matric passes, our educational system is no better. After all the billions or rand ploughed into black economic empowerment deals, no new black-established Sasols, Transnets, Eskoms that were established by the apartheid government are in place,” he said during the interview.

“When all these attempts at transformation are accompanied by shunning excellence, they become deformation; leaving all of us imperilled, disfigured and misshaped." South Africa is educationally and economically deformed because of this, he told his audience.

“Decolonisation can only be about building upon what exists from anywhere in the world to create something new and relevant to us as South Africans or Africans … The past is past. The present is about to pass. We need not regurgitate or relive them. Now, we need to focus on laying the foundation today for our collective future. Decolonisation should, therefore, be futuristic and not a hankering after the past,” he said in his speech.

A new legacy

Mthembu went on to call on students to find a new legacy that was not just a “shadow of past legacies”, of past struggle chants, songs and dances. “It should be a bright new light that shines on all of South Africa. It should be about the ripened fruit for all of us to enjoy and not the wormed fruit we are being force-fed in South Africa.”

He said it was time for the youth to focus “hawk-like”, but without apportioning blame and without being “degenerative and retrogressive”, on the challenge of extricating the South African socio-economy from the doldrums it is in.

“It is not about who sunk our socio-economy that will make us prosper; but who lifted it up out of the doldrums. That would be a better legacy,” he said.

Stunted economic growth

According to Mthembu, the difficulty students have with paying fees was not the true source of students’ rage. Rather these were symptoms of stunted economic growth in South Africa. “In turn, this sad state of affairs leads to poverty and unemployment that affects a substantial portion of our society; not only university students,” he said.

Sharing his motivation behind the speech with University World News, he said he felt the need to move beyond the realm of higher education in his inaugural address to highlight broader issues which he believed were related to the challenges facing students and institutions of higher learning.

“Higher education is enmeshed in society and the majority of our future leaders are currently being shaped in the higher education sector. While you have them within your range of influence, you try to do the best you can.”

In his former position as head of the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, Mthembu said he did as much as he could to engage with students during the #FeesMustFall campaigns, running a series of workshops aimed at political education.

Arab Spring parallels

“One of the workshops was focused on the concept of hierarchy and I used the Arab Spring uprisings as a springboard because South Africa is not divorced from events at a global level. And because #FeesMustFall was also a fight against authority and hierarchy – a power struggle.”

“I tried to build an awareness among students of the need to respect governance structures, and encouraged them to take their grievances through the proper channels. I told them: ‘Your disdain of hierarchy will come back to haunt you as your own authority as the SRC, for example, gets undermined by those who fail to win SRC elections’.

“I used a number of case studies from the Arab Spring experience and challenged students by asking them: ‘Are they better off now in the Arab World?’ It can’t just be about change without thinking about what should replace the status quo.”

The return to KwaZulu-Natal

Born in the small town of Nquthu in northern KwaZulu-Natal province, the Mthembu family moved to Nkandla where the young Thandwa attended school up to Grade 10 before finishing his schooling at St Chad’s High School in Ladysmith.

After leaving school he went to Fort Hare University for a BSc Honours degree, after which he earned a masters degree from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee in the US, followed by a PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Mthembu’s return to KwaZulu-Natal after 10 years in Bloemfontein marks something of a homecoming.

But far more than the sentimentalism of his return, he is motivated by what he sees as the opportunities to bring the university, the city and the region into a closer, more dynamic working relationship – with the ultimate goal of using the university’s innovations to help to grow the economy and meet the moral and economic imperative of preparing students for the world of work and entrepreneurship.

“I am enjoying Durban mainly because of the opportunities I see here for the university and its role in the development of the city and the region. Here we have a huge port, the motor industry, the petroleum industry, the paper and pulp industry, and others … a very diverse economy. I am excited by the possibilities around research and innovation – like a kid in a candy shop. That’s what excites me,” he said.

South African Technology Network

A former chair of the South African Technology Network, or SATN, a network of South African universities of technology, Mthembu has played a driving role in the growing emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship at universities of technology – an emphasis which is aimed at producing students who, upon graduation, are able to innovate and create their own jobs and, potentially, jobs for others.

While the concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship in universities are now seen by SATN member institutions as inherently critical to the country’s economic growth, what is lacking is a programmatic approach to implementation, according to Mthembu.

“Different institutions are doing different things, but we are stronger together. It is important that we remain open to lessons from other institutions around the world who are succeeding at the implementation stage, and fast track our progress together.”