Prof. Adam Habib

Vice Chancellor | University of the Witwatersrand

AfricaLive spoke with Prof. Adam Habib at the University of the Witwatersrand just days after the University jointly hosted the Fourth Industrial Revolution Summit in Johannesburg.

With the ways in which we do business and the ways in which we teach and learn changing dramatically, Prof. Habib believes the time to experiment with finding solutions through technology is already upon us. In addition to a passionate belief in the potential of South Africa and Africa, what comes across in this interview is perhaps frustration that the education sector and business is not coming together fast enough to build the innovation culture that Africa is capable of.

Where could the opportunities lie as Africa moves in to a new era of innovation?

AfricaLive: At this historical moment in South Africa’s development, what do you consider the primary role of Wits to be?

Prof Adam Habib: We are one of the institutions that has captured the national imagination in South Africa in a way that very few institutions have. Wits University has produced more Nobel Laureates than any other African university has. It is the place where Nelson Mandela was. It is the place where Robert Sabukwe was. It has probably produced 60 to 70% of the CEOs of the companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

We are the University that has probably produced the most billionaires on the African continent, and we produced the activists that fought the billionaires. In many ways, that is exactly who we are!

Our singular mandate is to fight inequality. I think inequality is one of the significant challenges of our globe. It underlies much of the social and political polarisation that exists.

A University’s role in addressing inequality is to enable access while maintaining quality. You ensure that students from all class backgrounds are entitled to come to the University. This means we need to have a business model and a funding regime to enable that to happen. We provide academic quality at the same time so we can create fantastic professionals and produce fantastic scholarship. That is who we are and who we aspire to be.

AfricaLive: How will technology disrupt education in Africa, and what do Universities need to do to remain relevant?

Prof Adam Habib: The rate of change means there is going to be huge disruption in multiple industries; higher education is just one of them. The real challenge of our time is to start experimenting now rather than waiting for a complete set of mature technologies and then deploy them.

What we have done most obviously is to reform and think through the curriculum with respect to technology and how it is going to change the professional disciplines. If you go to our computer science or software engineering programmes, there are new courses we have developed in this regard. However, even if you are to go to traditional programmes which you would not see as technologically grounded such as journalism then you would also see huge curriculum reform introducing people to social media, to new forms of distribution, to discussions on the new ethical boundaries we would need to think through.

We are carrying out research in to the future of work and what it means, what kinds of jobs will be lost, what kinds of new jobs will be created, what are the new skills that will be required.

We have launched a start-up facility. It is a space for young people to explore the new start-up possibilities where we give them management training, we give them some financial training and we put them in to networks with others.

We have launched a big programme in mining engineering, where we have partnered with the Minerals Council and multiple mining companies to explore the development of new digitized technologies in mining. Mining will fundamentally change in the next 30 to 40 years. What we need to think through how to create new technologies. South Africa and Wits, in particular, was important in developing first generation and second generation technologies in mining. We pioneered deep level mining and now we are involved in pioneering digitized mining and finding the technologies required.

We are now taking some of our full teaching programmes online, programmes such as our MBA. We are beginning to explore and experiment with multiple forms of learning, some of it will be pure online teaching, some if it will blended learning and some if it will be face to face.

It is important as we go forward in this new era to not create a new form of inequality in which poor people get online education and rich people get face to face education. That is not what we want to create, we want to create a much more complex and nuanced delivery of educational possibilities. Some people might start online and then move to face-to-face and use all of these possibilities in a complex structure. That is something we will be moving towards in the next twenty to thirty years and that is something we should be experimenting on now. We are one of the few who are at the cutting edge of that experimentation.

AfricaLive: How do you see the future for Africa? Do you believe that businesses are prepared for the changes taking place already?

Prof Adam Habib: Yes and No. Business tends to be particularly pessimistic about Africa, and they tend to be pessimistic about South Africa in particular. I think they miscalculate.

I have been having a series of engagements recently with the rating agencies and with some businesses in London. My argument with them is that one of the first principles of business is to catch the wave when it is starting. Once it has grown in to a fully fledged wave then you have lost the potential to make serious investments and money. You must catch the wave as it is beginning to evolve and that is something that is beginning to happen in Africa.

Let me give you an example, in the early 2000s we had many companies that began to move offshore. Let’s look at two South African companies; Sanlam and Old Mutual. Old Mutual in the late 1990s decided to list on the FTSE in London, Sanlam decided to stay in South Africa and focus in South Africa. At that time Old Mutual was twice the value of Sanlam. If you move forward twenty years later Sanlam is four times the value of Old Mutual. Sanlam by focusing on South Africa and Africa did a lot better, and I could give you example after example after example of this.

Every time businesses underestimate South Africa they effectively lose money. I think that is something that is worth bearing in mind, I don’t think they sufficiently appreciate our potential. Are risks higher here? Obviously. As much as risks are higher, returns are so much higher.

There is a complexity in the African economy and African experience.

I think when you look at a place like Wits, or University of Cape Town, or Stellenbosch, or University Pretoria, you can compare these institutions with the best in the world. I think they produce a quality graduate at 1/20th or 1/10th the price.

Looking at the mining industry I believe we can produce new technologies for the industry at 1/10th or 1/15th the price of the US or the UK.

It seems to me that that complexity of the African higher education sector is not appreciated by many in the private sector. And as a result, we are losing huge opportunities to develop great technologies to go alongside great professionals.

AfricaLive: How can we bridge the gap in Africa between the private sector and the Universities?

Prof Adam Habib: We are doing this at two or three levels.

Firstly, it is about engaging the private sector. You will increasingly see me approaching CEOs in mining, or tech, or at the pharmaceutical companies and establishing the possibility of new partnerships with them. For example, these partnerships at research level with pharmaceutical companies and developing new forms of therapies with them.

We are looking at the commercialisation of research to enable the development of the kinds of technologies that they need.

The second thing that we are doing is creating new sets of professionals. We have seen private companies increasingly engage us on the kinds of curriculum which we have established and the kinds of skill sets which are being created.

The third thing we are doing is experimenting with the very nature of the programme. For example, we have programmes where after two years of study the student will leave to a company like Unilever to spend a year there and then return to complete the course at the University. It is a completely new way of thinking about the structure of the programme.

Last week collectively with the University of Johannesburg, the South African government and a number of private sector organisations including Telkom, Deloitte, and Vodacom we launched the Fourth Industrial Revolution Summit. We brought the private sector together to explore what the fourth industrial revolution is, how we need to prepare for it, how business is fundamentally going to change and how the different partners can come together.

We will continue to do this, to continue to put out the message that the boundaries between ourselves, the private sector and the government departments should come down.