A Conversation with Prof Tshilidzi Marwala; Vice Chancellor, University of Johannesburg: Part 2

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Part 2

LM: 

You have an extensive global network and are a visiting scholar to universities abroad, what is the value of this unique global reach? 

TM: 

One of our pivotal roles as academics is to collaborate and coordinate research. This is critical for knowledge creation and enhances our ability to make meaningful contributions. At UJ, for instance, we have partnerships stretching across the globe, allowing for collaboration on multiple components of significant research projects. This will result in further developments in specific fields, patents, research outputs and in some cases, products. This extensive network also fosters academic and research engagement to ensure our students and academics are diverse as this mesh of people and knowledge contributes to what a real university is.

LM: 

Bill Gates once said, “Banking is necessary, banks are not”. Going forward, higher education is necessary and critical, but are higher education institutions necessary, if so, in what form will they survive? 

TM: 

Universities always have to be agile and responsive cognisant of their roles as thought leaders, knowledge producers and hubs of intellectual activity. Higher education institutions will remain pivotal for engaging in meaningful activity to contribute towards local, national and global debate. Like other higher education institutions, universities have to constantly revisit their strategic plans to ensure constructive alignment with a rapidly changing society. In a country such as South Africa, for instance, where there is rampant inequality and poverty, these institutions remain crucial as a knowledge base for many. Access to data and devices remains elusive for many, and the traditional brick and mortar institution will continue to remain relevant.

LM: 

As the Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, how do you see the future of UJ, and the challenges ahead? 

TM: 

One of our biggest challenges is bridging the technological divide, particularly among our students. We have also had to rise to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic given that there are no certainties as to when universities will revert to normal. While this has necessitated a push towards thinking of higher education through a 4IR lens, it has not been without difficulty. Another challenges for the sector as a whole is that higher education is resource constrained and has always been. The challenge for any university is to identify ways to diversify income streams in order to cushion any adverse effects of a recession, decline in student fees or decline in funding subsidies from government, for example. Universities also need to bridge the gap between graduates and an ever changing society, particularly keeping track of shift in fields and the future of jobs.

LM: 

The University of Johannesburg has really excelled in research output and productivity, what strategies have you put in place to achieve this and what do you plan to do to continue on this path? 

TM: 

UJ’s growth in research publication output has been consistent over the past decade, with an average growth of 15 % each year over the past four years for publications qualifying for a subsidy and authored or co-authored by academic researchers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, research associates and collaborators affiliated with the university. There are several contributing factors for this growth and this includes expansion of our active researcher base, an increase in academic staff with doctoral degrees, the rapid growth of our postdoctoral fellows, and increases in national and international collaborative networks. The Global Excellence and Stature (GES) initiative has also been instrumental in growing the UJ research community. The increase of South African Research Chairs from six early in 2015 to 17 Chairs in 2020, additional industry and public sector funded Research Chairs, and the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence and a host of exciting research centres and institutes have also contributed to the increased research activity. In addition, there are several research capacity development programmes offered by the faculties and the Postgraduate School.

LM: 

What plans do you have to increase the role of women in key science and technology roles and in research and innovation programmes at the University of Johannesburg? 

TM: 

The University had adopted a multipronged approach to ensure representation of women in STEM. We earmark funding for postgraduate studies to support female students. The University has a vast array of initiatives which includes the appointment of visiting professors and adjunct staff with the aim of addressing inequities in gender. The University ring fences funds for this purpose. Over 50% (52.9% to be exact) of our South African Research Chairs hosted at UJ are women and mentors to emerging female researchers. Our DSI Centre of Excellence for Integrated Mineral and Energy Resource Analysis (CIMERA) co-hosted with Wits University, is also led by women at both institutions.  Several research centres have female directors and UJ has a new exciting customised Women Research Leadership programme which it launched last week further supporting expansion of our female research leaders.

LM: 

How do you see the future of school education in the digital era, are our education systems, across the African continent preparing for the transformation required in the school sector?

TM: 

As with any development, elite components of the schooling system will be digitally and technologically savvy faster than government schools. It is a difficult to treat this as homogenous, and it must be noted that while there are plans for example, in South Africa, to introduce coding, smart classrooms and ensuring 4IR is reflected in the curricula, the progress may be slower than required.

LM: 

South Africa and Africa have huge challenges of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment- how do you think universities, with other social partners, can use the latest technology and innovative research to address these challenges? 

TM: 

Universities play a crucial role in finding solutions to problems, to work with industry and to ensure that our graduates are ready to be productive citizens. We are constantly monitoring the needs of society and responding accordingly. 

LM: 

What core skills should our universities be equipping students with to remain relevant in a 4IR future world? 

TM:

 In a 2018 report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicted that the fourth industrial revolution will create massive job losses but will simultaneously pave the way for new occupations especially in such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), data analysis, computer science and engineering. It is predicted that the demand will be for professionals who have a blend of digital and STEM skills with traditional subject knowledge. This is not all. There also needs to be a focus on human and social sciences subjects which provide the kind of perspective needed to embrace the fourth industrial revolution.

LM: 

What lessons has Coronavirus given you and your leadership team about leading through a crisis? 

TM: 

UJ has always had a business contingency plan that kicked into action at the onset of the pandemic. We have constantly been monitoring the external situation and working to mitigate risks internal to the university. This has required the establishment of COVID-19 crisis committee. In addition to this, the Management Executive Committee (MEC) has met daily to ensure that the university can discharge its functions despite the national lockdown. Resources have been redirected towards ensuring that our core business of teaching and learning continues remotely alongside a readjusted academic calendar. This, of course, has required collaboration with other universities, the government and other stakeholders.