Interesting work is underway at Walter Sisulu University where research into indigenous knowledge is carried out alongside medical research. The Unversity has a significant role to play in finding solutions which will drive economic growth in South Africa’s rural areas. Vice-Chancellor Rob Midgley talks to AfricaLive about fostering a global mindset amongst the students of the University, bringing indigenous knowledge into the University environment and establishing an innovation centre to drive the commercialisation of ideas and open up new revenue streams.
AfricaLive: What is the role of the Walter Sisulu University in creating the next generation of skilled South Africans?
Prof Midgley: Being a young institution born out of a merger between three institutions, we are still finding our feet in terms of identity. As we are located in rural South Africa, we have students hailing from poor and working-class families. It is, therefore, our role to ensure that we equip them with the necessary skills to transform themselves and their families.
AfricaLive: Is the focus only on these local rural communities?
Prof Midgley: Certainly not, though we are rooted in local communities, we have a global outlook. We do not prepare students to be confined to their communities; we want them to venture far and wide.
AfricaLive: What strategic goals have you set as the head of the institution?
Prof Midgley: As an institution that is just fourteen years old, one of our main goals is to develop a strong identity. We want to have not only a strong local presence but also a global impact.
We intend to make our students not just work-ready through our vocational courses, but also future-ready. Our students must have a diversity of skills to help them thrive in different environments. We are also heavily involved in social justice and work towards the achievement of the regions sustainable development goals.
Africa Live: How should African Universities and businesses prepare for the fourth industrial revolution?
Prof Midgley: The fourth and fifth industrial revolutions will come, and we can only ignore this at our peril. This continent, just like many other places around the world, faces a challenge of a digital resource divide. This is the case even amongst institutions of higher learning here in South Africa. There are haves and have-nots when it comes to digital resources, which only works to derail us. Institutions’ readiness for the fourth industrial revolution will depend on how governments invest in digital technology.
Africa Live: What can African Universities do to improve their access to resources and financial stability?
Prof Midgley: What we need is a mindset shift. We need to move away from relying on grants, government funding, and donations. We should instead find ways to create revenue streams that will fund our projects and day to day activities. Universities should no longer compete for grants just to fund their operations; they should approach donors from now on with a value proposition. We should seek to create impactful and mutually beneficial partnerships with donors.
Africa Live: What should be done to ensure Universities produce graduates that meet the demands of industry?
Prof Midgley: Unfortunately industries have gotten so advanced in their research to the point where they don’t need us as much as they used to. Universities must react to this by pooling their resources and doing collaborative research so that the result can be cutting edge research that will attract industry attention. Governments must also ensure that resources are centrally shared amongst Universities instead of having different resource silos which leads to low output. Resources alone should not be the focus; we must also change how we view institutions of higher learning. They must no longer be seen as isolated institutions on the hill. We can better engage with communities by relocating some of our departments and setting them up in these communities. An engineering department, for instance, can be located at a manufacturing plant, and a community development department can be located deep in the rural community. This set up will foster better community engagement and will prepare the students better.
Africa Live: What is your institution doing to foster the creation of successful small enterprises?
Prof Midgley: Though we are still in the initial stages of our business development programme, we can make a huge impact. Our main focus is on agribusiness since we are located in an area with rich soils and a favourable environment. We are training small scale farmers who will boost local economies and also provide food security. We have also built an innovation centre that is open to not only those within the institution but also the larger community. Our innovation centre will assist in the development and commercialisation of ideas while also helping innovators secure their intellectual property.
Africa Live: Is Agriculture the main core of your research?
Prof Midgley: Agriculture is a big part of our research but our strongest suit currently is medical research. We don’t just research on the chemist medicine you are accustomed to; we also delve into medicine derived from indigenous knowledge. Incorporating indigenous knowledge is important because it helps us to stay rooted in the community. Those who provide this indigenous knowledge also get economic benefits and skills. One of our most notable research products is herbal tea that was made using the recipe of a traditional healer. The institution is also researching on ceramics, auditing, and pending legalisation, we might also look into cannabis research. We also carry out extensive research in engineering and boast of being the only historically disadvantaged University in South Africa that produces engineers.
Africa Live: How can you improve engineering research considering how important it is for Africa’s development?
Prof Midgley: The first thing is to ensure that we produce competent researchers of our own. Developing key strategic partnerships is also very important. We currently have great partnerships with Stellenbosch University, the University of Coventry, and also the University of Leicester. We have also moved to step up research by partnering with the engineering council of South Africa, a partnership that will see us develop online learning courses for engineers.
Africa Live: South Africa seems to be at a crossroads at the moment despite its resilient private sector. What do you think the future looks like and what is your institution’s role in shaping it?
Prof Midgley: Though we seem to be at a crossroads, I am very optimistic. Institutions such as ours can help shape and secure the future. We can ensure that the next crop of leaders we produce are ethical, value-driven, and are there for the community, not themselves.
Africa Live: What do you want the University to look like in five years?
Prof Midgley: In five years, I want to see us running a modern operation that is technologically driven. I also want this institution to not only be proud of its identity, but also a University with a high-value proposition. In five years I want us to be living the fourth industrial revolution, and not just preparing students for it.