Sibongile Muthwa | Universities must transform

Newly inaugurated vice-chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa
Newly inaugurated vice-chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

It is no secret that South Africa, nearly 25 years into democracy, is still facing a large number of societal challenges. One of the fundamental challenges facing the South African society, one that was exposed so trenchantly by #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, is the stalled transformation of South African society.

Recent political changes in our country give hope that we are emerging from a particularly difficult period in our young democracy.

It is too soon to tell the extent to which the government can regain the confidence of the nation, re-establish the legitimacy of state institutions, and meaningfully reduce social injustice, poverty, inequality and unemployment.

The signs are encouraging and it is still too early to make definitive pronouncements, but the government alone cannot achieve this.

The higher education sector also needs to put its collective shoulder to the wheel.

The objective conditions within which we work are constantly changing.

New challenges and opportunities have arisen.

I have listened to the inputs made by staff and students over the last two months.

Among the challenges articulated around the academic project are a need to overhaul the enrolment value chain to be more flexible, agile and responsive.

The teaching and learning enterprise needs to confront and address a range of operational and strategic challenges ranging from overcrowded lecture venues to wrestling with the issues of decolonisation and Africanisation of the curriculum.

Our research portfolio needs to ramp up research outputs and innovation, and foster a larger cohort of emerging and socially diverse academics able to respond to the developmental challenges facing our country and continent.

We need to redefine the purpose of engagement and reposition engagement with communities to make a meaningful contribution to overcoming societal challenges.

This is particularly important as we bear a special responsibility associated with the name Nelson Mandela to align our intellectual resources to the historic task of creating a non-racial, equal and democratic society.

We are ready to respond to the clarion call to the nation made by our president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his state of the nation address to rise to the challenge of creating a new society.

Towards this end, we will commit our resources, skills and expertise to work with government, private sector, non-governmental organisations and civil society in communities where our campuses are located, as well as the wider nation on the major grand challenges focused on tackling unemployment, poverty and inequality.

If we fail to achieve an equal society, the university cannot fulfil its mission and purpose.
Towards this end, we have launched two major new and exciting growth areas through which Nelson Mandela University wants to directly contribute to the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality in society.

First, the development of South Africa’s first dedicated ocean sciences campus to provide state-of-art teaching, training, research and innovation support to boost the emerging ocean economy, in support of marine food security, aquaculture, marine manufacturing, including boatbuilding, marine technologies, port logistics and small harbour development, with specific focus on boosting SMME and community economy projects to take up new economic opportunities.

The new campus has also already attracted investments of more than R550-million for new infrastructure, labs, equipment and expertise dedicated to ocean science and technologies, and we plan to launch a second phase of expansion and modernisation from this year to 2020.

The second major growth area involves the launching of a new medical school by 2020, to provide cutting-edge, context-specific medical training, research and innovation services to improve the quality of healthcare services in our public hospitals and clinics, and quality of health within our communities.

We have already launched the pre-medical phase, and are currently busy with preparations to support returning South African trainee doctors from the Cuban-South African programme.

We are also currently working on approval for the full-scale launch of medical undergraduate training (MBChB) by 2020, subject to funding and accreditation approval by the government.

The medical school project will be a multi-billion rand investment into the local economy, and create new work opportunities for medical and healthcare professionals and students, and a source of technological innovation to improve the quality of healthcare in our institutions and society.

As we broaden access to quality higher education, we need to ensure appropriate support mechanisms are put in place, and that conditions conducive to teaching and learning prevail.

Concerns that emerged from the listening campaign in this regard include:

  • Ensuring that our human resource policies, procedures and management systems are agile, people-friendly, responsive and efficient;
  • Dealing decisively with issues relating to gender-based infractions and other exclusionary practices;
  • Resetting the relationship between management and organised labour;
  • Building the financial sustainability of the university; and
  • Rethinking support systems that define student life and learning – from safety and security, to transportation and accommodation – to ensure that we mitigate the negative effects of an unequal society and enable all students, whatever their circumstances, to live and learn on a relatively level footing.

I want to reassure the university community that we have heard you and we have much more clarity in how we will together tackle these matters going forward.

The change agenda we are conceptualising to address the challenges will have to be owned and implemented by all of us, in collaboration.

I have no illusions, and know that our success lies only in our ability to harness our collective goodwill and in our success to build institutional solidarity.

This is an edited version of the inauguration speech delivered by Nelson Mandela University vice-chancellor Prof Sibongile Muthwa this week.

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