Reimagining a university of technology for future growth

Advances in the field of additive manufacturing – more commonly known as 3D printing – have put the Central University of Technology (CUT) squarely on the world map, particularly with regard to the manufacturing of medical devices. But that’s just a starting point for an ambitious bid to “reimagine” the institution and create a “model university of technology in Africa” with applied research as an important element of its identity, according to CUT Vice-chancellor Professor Henk de Jager.

“We don’t want to be a University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch or Wits,” he told University World News. “We want to be excellent and world-class in selected areas. Our Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM) – a leading centre in additive manufacturing development – is world-class, and we have approved another five properly equipped and resourced centres.”

De Jager said among his intentions upon being appointed vice-chancellor of the Free State-based university last year, was to initiate a process of “re-imagining” an institution still coming to terms with the implications of its change in status – from technikon to university of technology – in 2006 and its role in a rapidly evolving national and global landscape.

“I wanted staff to take a step back and to recognise that it can’t be business as usual. Simply from a financial sustainability point of view, for example, not to mention developments globally around the fourth industrial revolution,” he said.

Since his appointment De Jager has championed a campaign seeking to make all members of the university community and the public aware that CUT, although a relatively young institution, is a “fully-fledged, transformative university of technology”.

Applied research

For De Jager, while universities of technology had the “obvious” mandate of producing quality graduates for the job market with a strong focus on technology, he said he believed it had another important mandate: top quality applied research.

“This means that whatever we are doing in the research space must have a positive impact on society. Because we have a strong science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) focus – we are aiming for 50% of our students to be in this space – that impact should be on socio-economic development, firstly, in our immediate region and secondly, the rest of the country.”

He said unlike research-intensive universities – many of which were doing equally good research work in the applied space – universities of technology had sole mandate to focus on technology. “Traditional universities have other disciplines which define their mandate. In my view, most of our focus should be on technology and how to apply that technology,” he said.

“We are still a young sector and we’ve still got a lot of work to do in terms of branding ourselves. We need to indicate to the community that we are long past the technikon phase where the focus was on the award of diplomas. Today, we offer a whole range of qualifications ranging from diplomas and advanced diplomas right up to masters and doctoral degrees – all of which fall under our broader mandate, which is to have a positive and direct impact on socio-economic development.”

There is still some debate in South Africa about differentiation in the higher education sector, with implications for the way in which different categories of universities are subsidised. However, De Jager said he believed that it was not possible to separate teaching and learning from research – even in universities of technology where research is intended to be translated into potential innovation, patents and viable products and processes which could have a direct and positive bearing on economic development.

A middle way

He said while there is an obvious need in South Africa for research-intensive universities, the South African landscape also provided for a “middle way” marked by a more balanced approach which included teaching, research, community outreach and societal impact.

“For me universities of technology are in that space: predominantly focused on undergraduate teaching and learning with a strong focus on STEM, but still with room to grow research outputs which can hopefully be developed into inventions and products. I am hopeful that universities of technology will retain their current mandate [which allows for high-level research].”

Pointing to the CPRM and the award to CUT of a SARChI (South African Research Chairs Initiative) chair in medical product development through additive manufacturing, De Jager said these developments were evidence that universities of technology were being recognised for their ground-breaking work in applied research.

But despite these achievements there was an ongoing perception that universities of technology were the poorer cousins of traditional or comprehensive universities.

De Jager said while CUT was “a small player in the broader research output space”, its emphasis on an applied impact meant they were not in direct competition with traditional or research-focused universities.

“Only about 34% of our academics hold doctorates so we know that our capacity for research is limited; hence our focus on a handful of areas of excellence. This gives us the opportunity to pool resources and enhance inter- and multi-disciplinary research.”

While it is the CPRM that has attracted most publicity, he said the university has plans to set up another five research centres focused on relevant areas:
  • • Applied Food Security and Biotechnology;
  • • Quality of Health and Living;
  • • Sustainable Smart Cities;
  • • Enterprise Studies;
  • • Diversity in Higher Education.
“Our focus is consistently on practical applications. We aim to use the outcomes of the research to ensure it has a direct and practical implication for community and is relevant for our time and context.”

Fourth Industrial Revolution

It is this focus, as well as the aim of producing employable graduates, that gave rise to the development of an “innovation ecosystem” at CUT which has seen the embedding of entrepreneurship in the undergraduate curriculum and the establishment of facilities such as an ideas gymnasium (i-Gym) and incubators designed to generate spin-off companies based on student ideas and research.

“If you look at the new technologies demanded by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are ideally positioned to take on the challenges to prepare students for the future world of work and to start their own businesses,” said De Jager.

He said the issue of curricula development for the industrial revolution would be tackled, among other issues, at this month’s South African Technology Network (SATN) international conference which starts this week.

“Our niche as universities of technology is really to be a bridge between academic and industry but we also have some work to do as a sector in promoting our branding and marketing our outputs.”

He said a recent decision by the government to phase out the BTech degree in 2019 was a setback because of its wide acceptance by industry. However, it would also give the institutions an opportunity to “rethink” their curricula more broadly to ensure they were relevant to the needs of the country and aligned with world trends.

Succession planning

Among the other key challenges facing higher education, De Jager pointed to succession planning and the shortage of future leaders, particularly women, in the sector. He said making the sector attractive to women was a key motivation behind the introduction of the New Generation Women in Leadership Programme launched by CUT in July to develop a layer of leadership.

“We can do much better as universities with regard to female leadership. But that’s just one example. It is also a wider issue. As universities we claim to want to instil students with the right values and create responsible, transformed citizens, but our top layers are not representative of the broader demographics of our country.”

He said while violence and damage to property should be condemned, the Fees Must Fall campaign had produced the positive effect of wrenching some universities out of their comfort zone and “waking us up” to the fact that we have a long way to go on the transformation path – not only around gender and equity issues – but broader aspects of how universities support students and staff.

“There were many positives to come out of it,” he said. “I am very confident we have a very special country with very special people in it. Soon the country will be stabilised, the economy will grow and that will have a positive impact on the sector.”