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Universities As Centers Of Innovation

I always find university rankings interesting. Why are some universities ranked higher than others? It is evident that while the quality of teaching is part of the key criteria, the rating agencies also look at the quality and quantity of research outputs, and close relationships with industry are all top criteria for excellence influencing university rankings.  However, it is essential that we reposition universities as centres of innovation, in particular in a country such as South Africa where we are dependent on skills and the need for economic growth to address the big five problems of unemployment, poverty, inequality, education and low skills levels.

In addition, while the massification of higher education at universities have exploded at the expense of vocational education over the last decade, there can be no doubt that students now receive less personal attention from lecturers.   I recently met with an HR Director from an Australian university who visited SABPP. He was shocked to hear about the typical South African university with more than 40 000 students. According to him a good university in Australia will have 6 000 students (like Rhodes University, our smallest university!).  Initially his response puzzled me, but now it makes sense.  Admittedly, we have serious socio-economic and political challenges not prevalent at Australian universities.  I then thought, I wonder what the size of a South African class at university will be if universities our subsidised not on student numbers, but on the employment rate of students.

Last year, the National Association of Distance Education and Open Learning (Nadeosa) celebrated its 21st anniversary at its annual conference at the University of Free State in Bloemfontein.  Nadeosa is an association focusing on promoting open learning, and therefore plays a vital role in building talent by means of distance and open learning.  However, given the speed of transformation in business, education and society, the question can be asked whether universities have managed to rise to the occasion in becoming centres of innovation in the new talent-driven economy.  Or put differently: Do universities play its rightful role as innovators in the talent economy as producers of both knowledge and talent?  To address this question, the Nadeosa conference included a panel discussion about dismantling the challenges inhibiting post-school education and transformation through open and distance learning.

The university as an institution of learning has meaningful impact on the talent economy.  On the talent supply side, universities produce talent for the business world. In fact, South African graduates have achieved significant success all over the world.  The following guidelines were shared with delegates at the Nadeosa conference:

  • Universities should step up to become knowledge and innovation centres in society (as opposed to the traditional mindset of simply producing graduates for the market);
  • Institutions of higher learning must produce competent learners exiting the higher education system so that they are work ready and therefore employable, if possible immediately;
  • Universities should continue being centres of science and practice and obtaining the optimum balance is key in this regard;
  • We need better labour market intelligence and use this information to make better decisions based on the right balance between supply and demand in the labour market;
  • The pace of change in business is so fast, that society cannot wait for three years when universities are ready to release students for the labour market, a much shorter and more dynamic learning delivery system is needed – one that can produce regular chunks of learning at a much faster rate than the traditional three year learning cycle;
  • Post graduate research must address real problems and be used as catalysts for innovation in practice;
  • There has been too much talk and too little action on work-integrated learning – full integration and action is urgently needed;
  • Universities must adapt to the pace of change in the business world by getting programmes approved and implemented at a much faster rate;
  • The whole education system should be improved (from early childhood development, to school to higher education) so that universities are not required to fix the deficiencies of a broken youth education system;
  • Moving away from the traditional paradigm of providing learners for the corporate world only, universities should adapt to become centres of entrepreneurship and innovation;
  • In addition to teaching curriculum, universities should actively work towards finding solutions to the current socio-economic problems such as crime, unemployment, poverty, inequality and enabling us to achieve faster levels of economic growth;
  • Universities should appoint more business people and entrepreneurs to accelerate current efforts of transforming universities in relevant and innovative institutions;
  • It is time to move beyond the current rhetoric to leverage public-private partnerships in higher-education based on meaningful collaboration and transformation utilising the collective wisdom of multiple stakeholders;
  • While universities always looked at the west for wisdom, the time has arrived to study local and African, Asian and other regional models – currently Rwanda and Ethiopia are leading the African continent in innovation;
  • Responding to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, universities should embrace technology by becoming centres of digital innovation by building strong online and mobile learning capability to leverage machine learning and deep learning required today;
  • Higher education institutions should leverage social media platforms for daily interaction with learners and society at large;
  • Given the growth and quality of professional bodies in South Africa, working much closer with professional bodies can play a key role in improving the provision of relevant higher education academic and industry-focused programmes;
  • It has never been more important to put the learner at the centre of the learning process by empowering learners with opportunities for learning, sharing, networking and growth;
  • More impact studies should be conducted to evaluate the impact of university programmes;
  • Innovative solutions should be found in areas where a lack of resources is often put forward as an excuse for not delivering programmes (e.g. most churches are empty for six days a week and could be used as centres of learning during the week).

In the light of the above discussion, it is clear that while universities are indeed in principle effective vehicles for driving the talent economy, the current reality is that this has not yet been achieved.  There appears to be a lack of an innovation mindset at universities.  It is therefore not surprising that corporate universities have mushroomed as a solution for addressing the talent needs of business internally.  Thus, a lot of work still needs to be done in ensuring that universities leverage the talent economy.

While universities contribute significantly to the supply of talent, in most cases, these efforts are inadequate.  Should universities be able to become fully-fledged innovation centres, they will be able to play the role as catalyst for providing the talent economy with the skills needed in creating thriving talent societies. Working with talent managers in business should be a top priority for all universities.  Whether universities will be able to elevate and innovate their current academic and institutional models will depend on their ability to redefine their role in modern society as centres of innovation. This will require a major national project in transforming into innovation and change agents in building large talent pools needed to drive competitiveness, innovation and economic growth.
Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the professional and quality assurance body for human resource management. He is also the vice-chairperson of the Talent Advisory Board of the University of South Africa.

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One Comment

  1. Leonora Leonora

    An interesting article, however it will need a whole new paradigm shift for people to realise the effectiveness of innovative and small universities.

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