Professor Ahmed Bawa

CEO | Universities South Africa

Professor Ahmed Bawa of Universities South Africa speaks to AfricaLive on the importance of introducing a triple helix model of innovation in African research, why South Africa’s Universities need the private sector to increase collaboration and investment in R&D, and the role of government in allowing inter-African partnerships to develop in the education sector.

AfricaLive: What is the role of African higher education institutions at this moment in time?

Prof. Bawa: African Universities are in some context, locally-focused institutions. However, they are also global institutions since knowledge is a global entity. I can describe the role of African Universities in three ways.

First, it is to contribute to building democracy, nationhood, and citizenship. The second role is to contribute to building a globally competitive economy. Finally, Universities play a role in creating more equal societies and social mobility. South Africa, in particular, displays a profoundly unequal society with unequal distribution of wealth.

Other than those three critical roles, Universities also play the role of being bridges between our societies and other global societies.

What concrete steps should be taken by both the private and public sectors to improve the relationship between universities and industry?

We have created a strategy group which we call The World of Work Strategy Group, with the idea of galvanizing the partnership between the university sector and industry. There are some things on that agenda which help in linking the Universities and the private sector. 

The first one is the integration of new technologies and their impact on the labour market. The second area of engagement is around work placements for students while they are still studying. It includes work-integrated learning, internships, and serving articles, among others. Entrepreneurship development in higher education is another agenda that looks at how students are equipped with entrepreneurial skills while they are still studying. The last one is the Graduate Destination Survey to know where students go to after graduating.

We are also approaching the government about re-establishing the program of research funding, which would help leverage the partnerships between Universities and the private sector. We would hence utilize the Triple Helix Model of Innovation.

In your opinion, what current trends and changes within the sector are going to have the most influence the future of African education?

We have a participation rate in higher education of about twenty per cent of eighteen to twenty four-year-olds. However, the National Development Plan 2030 requires us to get to thirty per cent, which we can only achieve through the efficient use of technology.

Secondly, we are keen on how to use new technology for students’ success, especially using data analytics.

The third thing is the need to move towards higher levels of life-long learning. Even those who are at their workplaces should be encouraged to improve themselves because the world is continually changing.

Finally, we try to understand the use of these technologies in developing innovation. Most universities are currently engaging in significant research on these new technologies.

How confident are you that South Africa’s Higher Education Institutions will remain relevant in this time of rapid disruption?

I feel confident. First, the Higher Education sector in South Africa has never been more successful before. The research output is on a good trajectory, but the challenge is the extent to which we can get much stronger absorption from the private sector. It solely depends on the investment in R&D and the development of new products.

What is the future of research for Africa and South Africa?

To increase Africa’s contribution to global research, much higher integration of research and development and innovation with other African education systems is crucial.

Clinical medicine is South Africa’s leading research area because we relate to the infectious diseases in that field. The second point, therefore, is to get African Universities to focus more on solving the local problems in such a way that they contribute to global knowledge. That would also help to create a competitive economy.

How can South African Universities play a crucial role in fostering the culture of Inter-African partnerships?

The infrastructure for collaboration is in place. Examples are the Southern African Development Community and the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA). These are excellent platforms for us to build these collaborations.

One of our biggest challenges in Africa is the lack of resources. If we succeed in forming these collaborations, we are going to have to find ways of funding them. We have to find ways of getting our governments to create pools of money that will allow these collaborations to take place.

Another critical factor is the issue of mobility of students, academics, and people working in knowledge-intensive industries. These collaborations can only work if there are close connections which are made possible by smooth movement across our borders.

The reason for the higher rate of collaboration outside Africa is because there is money for that. Addressing the issues of funding and mobility can encourage Inter-African partnerships, and it does require governmental initiative.

What’s your opinion on how the African Higher Education sector can get itself on the global map to attract philanthropic funds on a bigger scale?

First, we have to go back to the idea of collaboration and find ways of optimizing the limited resources that we have. Secondly, we have to address the challenges that are facing us in terms of food security, water security, energy security, health security, and so on. We should look at the industrial revolution in the context of these challenges. The key things are collaboration and the need for resources.