Prof. Francis Petersen

Vice Chancellor | University of the Free State

Professor Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor University of the Free State, talks to AfricaLive about accelerating South Africa’s economic growth, building partnership across the continent, and fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in the heart of South Africa.


AfricaLive: What is the identity of your University and what’s your strategy to bring forth a new generation of skilled graduates?

Prof Petersen: The University of the Free State is located at the centre of South Africa which does not get as much attention as the North and South sides do. People need to know that there is a lot of life in the centre South Africa as well. Our University’s main identity is that of a thought leader in various fields. We focus mainly on three fields; agriculture, entrepreneurship, and technology. Being a thought leader is all about being innovative in everything we try to do, and our curriculum reflects that. We have also taken social justice very seriously.

We want to make sure that the next generation of graduates that leave our institution is not self-centred and that they feel the need to uplift others. We also emphasise on the relationship between industry, private sector, and commerce in whatever we do. We work to ensure that the research does not end up gathering dust on library shelves, but is used to better society. We are a higher education institution that is prepared to sit at the table with other stakeholders from the private and the public sectors. All this is embedded in our vision. This vision forms our strategic plan and our integrated transformation plan. 

In summary, we want to be seen as an institution that is a thought leader producing quality graduates and one that pays its dues to the social justice cause.


AfricaLive: In the age of the fourth industrial revolution, how do you plan to engage the industry to ensure your institution remains relevant?

Prof Petersen: We have created what is known as the industrialisation group within the school. The group is designed to focus on three areas. The first is an industry focus on our academic programmes. This entails our students and some staff members meeting with industry officials regularly. We work to foster an ecosystem where the marriage between academia and industry becomes very easy. 

The establishment of fifty-five advisory boards across various schools in the University helps us cement our relationship with industry. Our second area of focus is short learning, where students are trained in a way that they can adapt to industry changes fast. Within this, we look at the various companies in the industry that we are currently engaging with. We have to look at their set up and monetary value while also scanning through various sectors as well. If a company we are in partnership with is in the mining sector, for instance, we want to help grow that industry. All this will help us build the image of a partner with a value proposition. It also goes a long way in letting other stakeholders know that we see ourselves as part of their industry.

Our third area of focus is our preparedness for the fourth industrial revolution. It is not just about the new jobs that will be created, but also about considering those who are currently working. There is a need to look at the effect the fourth industrial revolution will have on them as well. Whenever I am faced with the question of what we are doing to ensure readiness, I highlight two key things that we are currently focused on. One is the future world of work, and the second is the digital environment. Those areas drive a lot of our research projects. Agriculture is a key topic that has to do with those two areas. We centre our research on how the current digital environment can help improve our agriculture. This research can be used to inform the future world of work.


AfricaLive: What should be the future of research and development in South Africa, and what is your role in creating that future?

Prof Petersen: The big question we should ask in South Africa is how do we respond to our main challenges? Those happen to be poverty, unemployment, and inequality at the moment. When we unpack these challenges, we come up with economic growth as a remedy. We, therefore, have to ask ourselves where this economic growth will come from. Our current annual growth numbers don’t exceed one per cent, we have to push that to three, four, five per cent to respond adequately to our problems. The research we are currently doing needs to have a short term, medium-term and long term impact. It is difficult to have an impact as an institution if you are not clear on the issue. We, therefore, have to figure out how to bring the research academy closer to the potential beneficiaries.

We also have to identify specific action plans that will form the theme of our research. If we look at the city of Bloemfontein as an example, we have to ask ourselves how we can contribute to its economic growth. In a city like ours where we don’t have big industries, we have to look at SMEs and what we can do to offer support. As the University of the Free State, we have a few flagship projects that are geared towards growing our city. We have projects that advance indigenous knowledge which can help create indigenous health products, for instance. We are also looking into food production through small scale farming and digital farming where technology is infused into farming. We are also looking into climate change research and how it will promote agriculture. We also have a very strong physics group that focuses on producing new materials as well as a group that does social justice research. Our research focus gets a big boost since we are host to the only FDA approved clinical trial facility on the continent.


AfricaLive: The failure rate of start-ups within the SADC region is alarming. What are institutions such as yours doing to improve this?

Prof Petersen: Our approach to tackling this is very systematic. We feel that there is a need to understand what entrepreneurship and innovation is. All our first years are, therefore, exposed to a module on entrepreneurship to sensitise them. We then have programmes that absorb those that remain interested in entrepreneurship after their first year. Those programmes see people in the industry, who have set up start-ups; come to mentor our students. We also have a financial student incubator where students are exposed to financial planning and business modules. The incubator is an interesting place because we bring in entrepreneurs that had some failed ventures, and have them speak on where they went wrong.

The support we lend to start-ups is therefore mostly to do with business knowledge. We focus on letting people know what it takes to start and run a business. One of the biggest challenges faced by start-ups, especially those who deal with government is cash flow problems. Government projects face payment delays that affect their ability to execute new projects. If the payment delays persist, cash flow is affected and this will ultimately kill the business. We, therefore, have a role to play in creating awareness of the need for capital inflow sustenance.

AfricaLive: What current trends in the education sector will have the most influence in the future of African education?

Prof Petersen: One of the trends is online learning. Africa’s current youth bulge has led to an increase in the demand for higher education. The challenge is that we don’t have enough quality institutions to provide that. The other trend is the funding of our education. Most African universities receive large amounts of funding from the government. We have to look at how sustainable this current model is, especially with the constant wrangles that are witnessed in government. The third trend is ideas coming from university scholars being challenged by populists. The current debate on whether climate change is real or not is a great example.


AfricaLive: How confident are you in the future of Africa?

Prof Petersen: I am very optimistic and excited about what lies in the future. I believe Africa can fast-track its growth by focusing on agriculture and entrepreneurship. We also have to invest and exploit resources such as oil and gas as well as minerals. Focusing on agriculture, natural resources, and entrepreneurship will organically grow our transport and infrastructure. If we don’t figure out and develop our key economic drivers which will lead to the growth of other sectors. We will keep growing incrementally, instead of rapidly.


AfricaLive: If you had one message to send out with regards to the University of the Free State, what would it be?

Prof Petersen: The message I would like to send out to all stakeholders is that Africa has a bright future. This future will only be realised if stakeholders come together in a bid to build synergy. The keys to our development are partnerships, collaboration, and framing our key foci for our continent. We may not get a full consensus on what we should focus on, but we can all find common ground.