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Africa’s graduates must be ‘fit for purpose’

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Picture: University of Cape Town (UCT) campus. On Friday, UCT vice-chancellor, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, hosts a high-level delegation of 16 vice-chancellors from Africa’s leading research universities and 15 European university leaders. It is the first time a meeting of this nature has taken place in Africa. The vice-chancellors form part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

By Edwin Naidu

Undoubtedly, universities in Africa need a mindset shift to ensure that the future crop of graduates is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Money has often been described as the solution to the continent’s tertiary challenges. But is it?

A bottomless cash pit still would not instil in one a winning mindset. Indeed, it can help since it has been widely reported that less than one per cent of the global research output comes from Africa.

Will money turn this around? One cannot say without evidence, but if one is determined to rise above and make a difference in society, one needs the heart and desire to do so. Anyone motivated by financial reasons, and there are many on this path, will be found out.

Increasingly, one hears the term social justice thrown about. Simply, it means justice in the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society. This phrase is favoured by civil society and politicians alike.

But in the 21st century, one may not easily see “individuality give way to the struggle for social justice” when it concerns politicians. But that is for another day. However, one can argue that academics, lecturers, teachers, and nurses put themselves last because they want to do good and improve society.

As part of the proposed African Union-European Union ((AU-EU) Innovation Agenda, announced on February 14, 2022, ahead of the AU-EU summit, universities were deemed to have a critical role in cementing AU-EU relations.

Acknowledgement of this is vital in changing the narrative on the Continent.

On Friday, the University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Mamokgethi hosted a high-level delegation of 16 vice-chancellors from Africa’s leading research universities and 15 European university leaders. It was the first time a meeting of this nature took place in Africa. The vice-chancellors form part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

Founded in 2015, ARUA consists of 16 leading research universities in Africa. Its purpose is to expand and enhance the quality of research by and on the continent. Founded in 2016, The Guild comprises 21 of Europe’s most distinguished research-intensive universities in 16 countries. Their goal is to enhance the voice of academic institutions, their researchers, and their students.

The discussion featured top African and European university leaders on Friday in a hybrid format and a virtual version via Zoom. African universities include Rhodes, Makerere (Uganda), Wits, Ghana, Lagos, Addis Ababa, Stellenbosch, Pretoria, and KwaZulu-Natal. European universities include Kings College London, Glasgow, Paris Cité, Oslo, Warwick, and others. They discussed the formation of clusters of excellence with multimillion euros in funding, bringing the two powerful alliances together to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century, thus maximising the impact of their work.

Is this the answer to helping to redefine university outcomes that ensure graduates are equipped for the 21st century?

This critical meeting happens when the European Union (EU) is funnelling unprecedented amounts of money into African research through several funding instruments, mainly through partnerships between European and African universities.

One concrete element of the proposal was developing and strengthening clusters of excellence, fostering research excellence, and enhancing intra-African and North-South science collaboration. The Guild and ARUA propose the establishment of 40 Centres of Excellence (CoE), each funded by up to €20 million (almost R350 million) per year. The coming together of the Guild and ARUA will discuss the proposed formation of these clusters of excellence. They will expand on the work of ARUA’s existing CoEs, which have already played a significant role in fostering collaboration on the continent and providing solid instruments that promote African-centred knowledge.

ARUA’s 13 CoEs are each focused on the challenges faced by the continent. Africa is only too aware of these global challenges, given the large, impoverished populations and limited resources to build resilience to, for instance, ensure food security or adapt to the ravages of global warming. Funding is therefore increasingly channelled towards work on the continent, and researchers in the global North are encouraged to partner with universities in Africa.

On 1 November, ARUA member the University of Pretoria (UP) launched its employability-focused Digital Capability Laboratory at the Hatfield Campus to equip students with skills that will enable them to thrive and adapt to the constantly evolving world of work. The newly launched lab aims to address South Africa’s staggering youth unemployment rate by upskilling students to develop them into employable, innovative, and solution-driven graduates.

The lab was launched as part of the European Union’s (EU) Erasmus+ SUCSESS Project, which researches ways to tackle youth unemployment and boost student employability in South Africa.

UP is one of six higher education institutions involved in the EU Erasmus+ SUCSESS Project. At UP, the project is led by Berendien Lubbe, Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Associate in UP’s Department of Historical and Heritage Studies.

The lab will employ digital collaborative learning as part of UP’s efforts to develop future-fit programmes. UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Prof Tawana Kupe said the University must prepare and equip its students for the future world of work, which is anticipated to be vastly different from the current one.

“This next generation of graduates is expected to change jobs and professions multiple times across many new emerging sectors and will need to upskill to stay employable continuously.

The Digital Capability Lab will be transdisciplinary-focused and managed by the faculties of humanities, economic and management sciences, and UP’s Department of Career Services. Professor Sandy Africa, Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Humanities, said the lab’s equipment and technologies would harness the students’ limitless potential and nurture their talents while preparing them to be agile in their future working environments.

Echoing Africa’s sentiments on the essence of technology in boosting employability, Professor Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, said one of the Faculty’s key focus areas is to develop employable graduates who will use technology to be part of a skilled and innovative labour force in South Africa.

“It is crucial for our faculty to develop employable graduates who will take advantage of these technological advancements. This lab attests to our commitment to equipping our students with capabilities for the future,” she said.

ARUA and the Guild may not have to go too far in looking at how this initiative at UP impacts society where there is a dire. This will ensure other institutions evolve in terms of what they offer to ensure graduates are a better fit for the future.

Naidu is a journalist and communications expert. He also heads up Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up committed to stimulating dialogue and raising awareness around education and the socio-economic, environmental, and political factors it influences in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.