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 is your strategy to bring forth a generation of skilled graduates?
Prof Petersen: The University of the Free State is located at the center 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 of South Africa as well. Our University’s main identity is that of a thought leader in various fields. We focus mainly on three fields, that is, 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 are not self-centred, and feel the need to uplift others. The relationship between industry, private sector, and commerce is emphasised 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. As a higher education institution, we are prepared to sit at the table with other stakeholders such as the private sector and the public sector. All this is embedded in our vision which is translated into a strategic plan, as well as our integrated transformation plan. In a nutshell, we want to be seen as an institution that is a thought leader producing quality graduates and paying its dues to the cause of social justice.
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 our institution. The group is designed to focus on three areas – the first is an industry focus on our academic programmes which entails our students and some staff members meeting with industry officials regularly. This fosters an ecosystem where the relationship between academia and industry becomes 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 that of short learning, where students are trained in a way that they can adapt quickly to industry changes. Within this, we look at the various companies in industry that we are currently engaging with, 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 them.
Our third area of focus is our preparedness for the fourth industrial revolution. It is not merely 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. Most of our research projects are driven by these two areas. Agriculture is also a key topic that is related to these two areas, whereby 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 percent – we have to push that to three, four, five percent 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 issues at hand, and therefore, there is the need for us 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. For example, through the advancement of indigenous knowledge, we can help create indigenous health products for instance. Food production through small-scale farming and digital farming where technology is infused into farming is also an area that is being explored. We are also looking into climate change research and how it will promote agriculture, and our strong physics group focuses on producing new materials. As host to the only FDA approved clinical trial facility on the continent allows our research focus to benefit from a major boost. Social justice research is also being carried out.
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 systematic. We feel that there is a need to understand what entrepreneurship and innovation is. All our first-year students are therefore, exposed to a module on entrepreneurship to sensitise them. We then have programmes that absorb students that remain interested in entrepreneurship after their first year. These programmes see people in the industry, who have set up start-ups, mentor our students. We also have a financial student incubator where students are exposed to modules on financial planning and business. The incubator provides a platform for entrepreneurs that had some failed ventures, to speak to our students on where they went wrong in their businesses.
The support we lend to start-ups is therefore mostly related to business knowledge, with our focus mainly on sharing information on the requirements and what it takes personally to start and run a business. One of the biggest challenges facing start-ups, especially those that 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 which ultimately compromises 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 online learning. The second trend is that of funding of our education. Most African universities receive large amounts of funding from the government. There is the need to examine the sustainability of this current model, especially with the constant wrangles that are witnessed in government. The third trend is that of ideas emanating from university scholars that are being challenged by populists. For example, the current debate on whether climate change is real or not is a perfect example.
AfricaLive: How confident are you in the future of Africa?
Prof Petersen: I am very optimistic and excited about the future. I believe Africa can fast-track its growth by focusing on agriculture and entrepreneurship. We need to invest and exploit resources such as oil, gas and 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, our growth will be incremental instead of rapid.
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.