Both skills and knowledge have a place in HE, experts argue

Universities should resist external pressure to develop students with skills only aimed at employability and focus on imparting knowledge that will empower students when reviewing their programmes and curricula. Universities should also focus on competencies in addition to academic achievement when admitting first-year students.

These were some of the messages imparted during a webinar hosted by RUFORUM (the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture) on 31 May 2023. The theme of the webinar was, ‘Transforming university processes, systems and learning experience’.

Universities should also refrain from responding to criticism from politicians and other actors that is often based on the old dichotomy of which programmes are most important for national development: those in the arts and humanities, or those in the natural sciences.

Instead, they should assert that, whatever courses they teach are for the sake of knowledge and broader life, said Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, professor of ethics and development studies at Uganda’s Makerere University.

“While we should continue listening to industry and what it needs in terms of skills, we should explain to them the importance of learning. We should define what education is and what it is meant for in life,” he said.

Moral issues need attention

“Over and above equipping students with skills, we need to reduce focus on employment and focus on knowledge for living life and facing societal challenges that cannot be solved by technical skills,” the don noted.

He said that most African societies are faced with the twin challenges of corruption and dishonesty, two vices worse than unemployment – moral issues that cannot be solved by technical and related skills that have increasingly become the main focus of education.

“We have to agree that education has a role to play in character-shaping. As it stands, we all acknowledge that corruption is making nonsense of both education and skills,” Ssentongo told the webinar, which also focused on the 21st-century learner.

Knowledge, the don further observed, has no lines or boundaries, and the borders between disciplines were not as prominent in real life as they were made to look in academia. For this reason, it was important that complementarity of disciplines is encouraged at all times.

The narrow view of education and knowledge is evident in widespread imitations in society. For example, many people with capital reproduce the same business ideas due to a lack of creativity and the “general inability to question things”, he lamented.

Study should be about learning

“Our universities need to go back to equipping learners with skills to imagine, to be creative, to arouse their curiosity, and to question things, even though our cultures do not encourage questioning, especially where elders are concerned,” Ssentongo said. He feels universities should strive to give students skills to create employment but argued that education in many countries oriented students to study for the sake of acquiring papers, as opposed to learning to acquire knowledge.

As a result, students threw away their books and other learning material when they graduated. The problem has spread to the graduate level, where students with inadequate research skills paid someone to complete their dissertations for them, just to get the qualification.

Ssentongo also said that exams test memory instead of knowledge and called for new ways of testing knowledge.

Professor Francis Petersen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) in South Africa and keynote speaker at the event, said that, despite facing increasingly complex challenges, universities continue to play a crucial role as “engines of social mobility”, drivers of economic development and generators of new ideas. However, their mandate has shifted over time from being mere generators of knowledge and from a purely academic focus to playing a more “society-focused role”, he added.

They, therefore, need to renew themselves and reimagine their approaches to fulfil their mandates while remaining conscious of the rapid social, scientific and technological developments happening around them. “To adapt to changes in society, African universities have no choice but to reform their teaching and learning approaches, curriculum and course content, research focus, systems and processes,” Petersen said.

Strategy should be backed by systems

Besides producing employable graduates, universities are obliged to go the extra mile to empower them with skills for problem-solving, critical thinking and entrepreneurship embedded in their curricula.

To position itself as a 21st-century university, the UFS developed a comprehensive digitisation strategy that harnessed ICT for enhanced learning, research, collaboration and decision-making, among other functions. The aim was to transform the institution into a quality-focused, research-led teaching and learning organisation. They also made curriculum responsiveness and decolonisation strategic priorities.

“We appreciate that having a clear strategy, plan or a transformative agenda is not enough if not backed by proper processes and systems. We also realise that turning a dream into reality needs to be supported by an environment of excellence,” Petersen added.

For universities to produce the ideal graduates, they need to get it right when admitting first-year students, said Ariel Sanchez, director of admissions at EARTH University in Costa Rica. The university, which strives to prepare students with ethical values to participate in national development, does not admit students based only on academic aptitude tests but conducts a required competency test to build the profile of a student. The assessment focuses on attributes such as maturity, ethics, teamwork skills, innovativeness, attitude and entrepreneurial potential, among others, he said.

Find the best candidates

A firm believer and promoter of lifelong learning, the institution believes that academic capabilities, alone, are not enough to produce ideal graduates.

“At EARTH University, we focus on getting the best candidate as opposed to getting the one with the best grades because we know that the best student is not always the student with the best grades,” Sanchez said. The university hosts students from 50 different nationalities.

To achieve the objective, the university has developed tools that include personalised interviews conducted with academically qualified students, psychometric testing, and values and attributes indexes. Some of the tests are repeated annually to measure the impact of educational processes.

Subsequently, EARTH has been able to establish a direct correlation between the test results and student satisfaction and retention rates, he said.

The university, a private institution, practises “strategic management of enrolment” because it sees learners as agents of change in society, further believing that, with the right values, attitudes and motivations, they can make impactful contributions to society.

New scientists needed

Africa faces a huge challenge to overcome the shortage of the right skills its people need for development, Professor Patrick Okori, RUFORUM executive secretary, said. Africa has a pool of inadequate and ageing scientists, and new cohorts are not produced fast enough. The “lopsided” ratio of professors to regular faculty further heaps pressure on universities’ ability to produce graduates with the right skills.

As they strive to overcome the difficulties and aim to scale more heights, universities should pay attention to the gender gap in academia and in general. Women continue to be disadvantaged by cultural biases, and the need to close the gender and diversity gap, in general, is urgent, Okori noted.