πŸ”’ SA universities will never be the same, and here’s why – Prof Francis Petersen, UFS

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives for the foreseeable future. Aside from social distancing measures that will probably continue well into 2021, the way we do business and the way we learn has changed – possibly forever. Professor Francis Petersen joined BizNews founder Alec Hogg to discuss how the virus has affected universities in South Africa. Prof Petersen seems to think that Covid has simply accelerated what was already in progress – a university that embraces digital technology in a way that really takes things forward. – Claire Badenhorst

Reimagining South African universities after Covid-19

Reimagining South Africa and the economy in particular after Covid-19 is something on many people’s minds, including Professor Francis Petersen, who is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State. Prof, lovely to be talking with you this morning. You’ve been having conversations with chief executives and executives around the country to see how they’re going to be operating after the pandemic has left us. What was the overriding conclusion of those discussions for you?

A lot of our effort has been on managing the Covid-19 pandemic as an organisation and at the University of the Free State, we have taken a sort of a project management approach. Multidisciplinary in nature, including scenario planning. At times we actually use culture experts to understand the culture of the organisation. But there was one aspect that I indicated to the university that, while our focus is in terms of managing Covid-19, we should actually look ahead and say, well, how would the university and university sector look post-Covid?

There were two principles that I think came out quite clearly, and the one is doing more with less. The other one was doing good while doing business. And for me, those two themes are actually about seeing how business is in terms of building competitiveness, building and contributing towards economic growth, but also making sure that communities aren’t left behind. And then, the two other things that we spent quite a lot of time on was the whole issue of digitisation. So, what is the impact of digital futures on the business model?

And secondly, about a flexible HR model.

“The work place will change, the work itself is changing, and the skill set that you need to have to operate in that world is also changing.”

So, to what extent is it a flexible HR model in terms of working remotely, but also to say, well, can we connect across different sectors of the economy?

The new normal for universities

Are the guys that you spoke to aware of the seismic shift that has happened? And are they now, almost fearfully, realising they’ve got to get with the programme – quickly?Β 

Ja, I think the whole aspect of digitisation has always been there in their planning, but I do think that Covid-19 has accelerated the focus on it. The shift in terms of what digitisation can do and should do is far more than what they have anticipated in their planning. Once again, it’s that accelerated path that Covid-19 has put on the table where people could say, well, it’s not a case of let us try this here and there, it’s actually going to be part of our DNA. That is now going to be the new normal.

I think to a certain extent, digitisation might have been utilised primarily to have a competitive advantage in the past. But now, if you’re not doing it, it’s not a competitive advantage, it’s about survival in a way. And I think it’s that particular shift that I really have picked up in those conversations.

But what about our country’s future? We are sitting with huge unemployment and many unskilled people, and you’re in the area where the attempt is made to improve all of this – education. It just has to get a higher priority, surely?

No, it absolutely has to.

“But I think to a certain extent, we’re sitting in a dilemma. On the one hand, education is quite key to be able to produce the next generation of graduates and hopefully, employed citizens. But if the economy hasn’t got the absorptive capacity to take in those graduates, you’re actually adding to unemployment in a way.”

I think it’s important that we try to align what we do in the post-school sector, and not only universities but also colleges, to align that closer to what the market requires and what your industry requires. That has always been the intellectual and academic debate because universities would argue that we’re actually not training vocational skills, we’re training thinkers. We’re training people that can think and generate new thoughts.

But I think it’s a combination of the two and at the University of the Free State, we have now, about a year and a half ago, focused our attention quite deliberately on all of our academic departments, that they should have academic advisory boards so that the people or the representatives from the economic sector actually know what’s happening at the university, also know what we teach, and advise us where there is a sort of a disconnect.

We need entrepreneurs

The second part is the fact that we need to focus on entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial skills. And again, at our university, we created an entrepreneurial value chain where we expose all of our first years to entrepreneurship. But I do believe that we need to see much more growth in the economy. And what I picked up in my conversation with the executives is that they want to engage. They want to engage with government. And in my statement, I said that, talking to Business Unity South Africa and the old Business Leadership South Africa, and Business for South Africa, they are engaging with government, but some of the executives indicate that they don’t see the urgency.

Read also:Β Inside Covid-19: Reimagining post-pandemic SA with Adrian Gore, Barry Swartzberg, and Prof Francis Petersen. Ep 72

There’s always that adversarial type of ‘mistrust’ between government and industry. And I’m making the point; there’s some economists that would say that real growth actually should come from the private sector and industry, and governments shouldn’t try to do that on their own. I think it’s a combination of the two. I’m talking about just economic growth in the sense so that we could start to give some positivity in the minds of the business sector itself, but also those graduates that are going to be graduating, and to say, well, I’m graduating now, I’ve got a degree, but where do I go?

The universities of the future

What about from a university’s point of view? Lecture halls in future might look very different to what we’ve been used to in the past. You spoke earlier about digitisation – how are you reimagining that side of the business, in actually educating the learners?

We’ve got 26 public universities in South Africa, and those universities, probably only with the exception of UNISA, all of those other universities are residential universities. And I do foresee that we will still have the residential university, but the delivery model will stretch in a continuum from face-to-face to complete online.

And what South African universities, and most of the universities globally, have done, during the period of Covid, is not really teaching online. I would say they are teaching remotely, and there’s a big difference between remote teaching and online teaching. The way that we design our residences, because our residencies are at the moment designed and also funded on the basis that students will be here for most of the time. So, we are also looking at, how does a flexible residential model look like?

At the moment, we believe that we have already started with new designs in lecture theatres with the flipped classroom methodology, and that happened a few years ago. So, that will be new thinking that we would introduce. We also will have to repurpose some of them because our members of staff, there will be certain categories that actually can work 95% from home or remotely.

And I say 95% because I think there still needs to be some social engagement happening. And therefore, you probably need hot desks for those, and those offices could also be repurposed. Repurposing is one of the things that I’ve been arguing in our university, and we are now taking forward the creation of what we call the Interdisciplinary Centre for Digital Futures. And what I’ve been arguing is to say that, there are three values that the university has that we can convert into a value proposition to society.

The one would be to say that we’ve got seven different faculties in our university, but most universities have got different faculties. If you create the ability for those disciplines to be able to blur one another, then you create sort of new thinking on the edges. Secondly, if you have a very robust engagement with private sector industry and commerce as a university. So, we’ve got our advisory boards, got our entrepreneurial thinking, we’ve got research and projects. So, I want to see the university campus as a boss of society and the economy engaging.

And then thirdly, if you’ve got a knowledge of the deep digital futures or 4IR technologies, such as machine learning; artificial intelligence; big data; high performance computing; all of those, and you have the ability to mix all of those three into one, and you say the outcome should be a benefit of society. You then start to really address or could address global issues because global issues is not disciplinary in nature, as you would know.

But the major challenge is, how do you create the environment for those thinkers to get together? If I like Alec, it’s easy to have a conversation, but I want to have a deliberate engagement. And I think spaces at the university should be designed more and more to catalyse that type of thinking. That is where I believe the repurposing should also happen.

Read also:Β If it’s a Zoom call, it must be time for Lego – Wall Street Journal

Very exciting future. How far away are you from it?

Well, at the moment, we started towards the end of last year by just getting groups together where there’s already this sort of thinking happening, and where we have digital input infused in that. So, we call it brown bag sessions that we had. A series of engagements.

There’s already over 50 of those engagements happening. I’m still trying to allocate the right space at the university for that get-together, but that sort of engagement is already happening. I think once that starts to happen in a few spaces on campus, where they can actually physically get together, and due to Covid-19 we could only get together virtually anyway, that momentum is going to kick off. I think it is going to grow extensively and probably exponentially.

In my conversations with the private sector, with the executives, I also mention that and you could clearly see, most of them would like to get involved because there’s agriculture, there’s health, there’s the finance sector, there’s the mining sector. And I think it’s going to be a major buzz.

Again, it doesn’t only have to happen in one university. For instance, we have the Odeion Music School, a school for music on our campus, and we are engaging with our Department of Neurology in Health Sciences faculty and now the Neurosciences Institute at the University of Cape Town to see how neuroscience can help us to improve the performance of students studying certain instruments. Now, that’s the type of thing that I think we need to do more of.

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