Dr Ahmed Shaikh, Managing Director of Regent Business School, warns that if South Africa’s higher learning institutions maintain the current curriculum and traditional ways of teaching, they will be “training students for irrelevance.” In this wide-ranging interview with AfricaLive.net, Dr Ahmed puts forward his vision for bringing learning environments into the 21st century, addressing the legacy of apartheid in South Africa’s education system, and how Africa’s youth will be drivers of disruption in the fourth industrial revolution.
AfricaLive: Please tell us about the identity of Regent Business School and your current role in the South African and African education ecosystems.
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: Regent Business School is a private higher education institution of higher learning. We are registered and accredited in South Africa to offer commerce, business, and management programmes.
As an institution, we offer training both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Our basic certification is the certificate level and our most advanced level is the doctorate. Our institution may be registered and headquartered in South Africa, but we accommodate students from all over the continent. We are proud to have a diverse student community, with most of our international students being from Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana, and Mauritius. Our long-distance programme has pulled in students from East and West African nations as well. Regent Business School is also a member of the first Pan African platform for private institutions of higher learning known as Honoris United Universities. This platform gives us what we like to call the “Cape to Cairo connection” since it links us to partners in East, West, and North Africa. Ours is, therefore, a very diverse community of learners and partners.
AfricaLive: The Honoris United Universities platform recently acquired a Mauritian higher education institution, in a move that has been seen as a way to expand its reach. Did your institution join that platform for the same reason?
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: In the last five years, we have seen a lot of aggregation in the South African private institutions of higher learning space. We have seen large private entities acquire several private institutions of higher learning. What used to be a very fragmented private education market has become quite aggregated. Health and education are the two sectors in Africa where the most progress can be made with sufficient investment. In this kind of environment, we as business schools have to weigh our options. We have to decide if we are going to carry on independently or join much larger platforms such as the Honoris United Universities. The platform is quite tempting to a lot of private institutions and for good reason. Business schools want to appeal to as many students as possible, so such a platform comes in quite handy. They also want to expose their faculty to diverse student communities, develop research collaborations, and train students in cross-cultural intelligence. To excel in a world where barriers are being broken down because of the fourth industrial revolution dynamic, cross-cultural intelligence is a must.
AfricaLive: What changes are needed so that African institutions of higher learning impact their societies more?
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: We are at a point and time where Africa’s higher education system is about to be massively disrupted. I do not want to sound alarmist but if we do not wake up and smell the coffee, we will lose our relevance.
The fourth industrial revolution will built upon disruption. Technological advancements will also play a huge role. The biggest disrupter though is Africa’s bulging young population.
Africa is currently seeing a youth bulge similar to the one that was seen in Asia back in the eighties and nineties. We have millions of youth below the age of twenty-five. These youth have needs and aspirations, and we are struggling to meet them. Business schools are trying to figure out what these youth should be learning, and what credentials they need to impact their economies. If African institutions of higher learning fail to draw effective curriculums for the twenty-first century, our relevance will be in question.
I recently ran a workshop at the Edutech Africa conference held in Johannesburg. My theme was “Twenty-first-century learning spaces”. My presentation critiqued the way we set up our learning spaces. I made the audience ponder on the question, “Are we trying to teach twenty-first-century skills in nineteenth-century classrooms?” If creativity, problem-solving, and collaborative intelligence are twenty-first-century skills, we can’t teach them in nineteenth-century setups. What I mean when I say nineteenth-century setups is the teacher-student positioning in a classroom. The nineteenth-century setup is unfortunately what we still use today. We have teachers being the sage on the stage, acting like they possess all knowledge. At Regent Business School, we realise that the competencies of teachers have changed, but not the classroom setups. We, therefore, promote peer-to-peer learning, which is the twenty-first-century way. Peer-to-peer learning is also known as collaborative, interactive learning and it is what we practise at the iLeadLAB. This mode of teaching sees teachers sit beside students as they interact amongst themselves in groups.
AfricaLive: What are the current trends that will impact African institutions of higher learning, and what can they do to remain relevant?
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: Africa’s youth bulge sees about five hundred million young people in need of higher education services. The installed capacity of public higher education institutions is not sufficient to absorb all these young people. South Africa for instance, has an installed capacity of 1.1 million in its twenty-six public institutions of higher learning. The big challenge is that the demand for higher education is way more than one million.
Cost is another big challenge when it comes to higher education. South Africa’s apartheid legacy has left many families unable to afford higher education. The ‘fees must fall movement’ is a cry for help by South African youth who feel helpless in the face of high tuition fees. We also have other trending issues on the continent such as gender equality, and the decolonisation of our curriculum. It’s not all doom and gloom though, because private institutions of higher learning are steadily growing in Africa. Institutions such as ours are stepping up to respond to the growing demand for higher education. Regent Business school is stepping up to offer superior student experience and quality accreditation all at an affordable price.
We also have to think about educational technology which is an emerging issue in Africa. Technology has made it possible to share information without needing to build schools. Webinars, emails, and mobile phone technologies are making education much more affordable and help address the higher education demand dilemma. Employers have also raised the issue of employability. They often claim that the graduates they get are not “plug and play”. They feel that graduates should be able to hit the ground running immediately they enter the workplace. Therefore, we have to do more as institutions of higher learning in equipping them for the industry. We must impart competencies such as digital technology, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing; before they leave for the industry. As business schools, we must look to reduce unemployment by emphasising on enterprise development. We want more students to think about developing start-ups instead of standing behind traditional employment queues.
AfricaLive: What can be done to address the deficit occasioned by African higher education institutions’ inability to meet growing demand?
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: We must come to terms with the fact that our governments are unable to deal with the rising demand for higher education. Our governments just don’t have the budget to address this sufficiently. We have proposed the creation of a hybrid system that creates a happy medium between public and private institutions. This hybrid system will enable us to support the high volumes of students that public institutions cannot accommodate. We can also respond to the high demand by embracing other forms of information delivery. If we offer distance learning, blended learning, while also embracing educational technology, a lot can be done to address the rising demand.
AfricaLive: Over eighty per cent of South African start-ups fold within three years of operation. What can institutions of higher learning such as Regent Business School do to address this?
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: If we maintain the current curriculum and traditional ways of teaching, we will be training students for irrelevance. We have to change our thinking or end up harming those we are trying to help. Regent Business School realises that business models are changing, and, therefore, we are preparing students differently.
Our institute of entrepreneurship has centred entrepreneurship in all its modules. We want to develop problem-solving, opportunity seeking, and start-up mindsets in our students. We realise that we cannot control job creation but we can influence the creation of work. We can do this through incubation in the iLeadLAB. Students at the iLeadLAB develop competencies in critical thinking, 3D printing, rapid prototyping, and disruptive technologies. These skills give them other options in life instead of just being job seekers.
AfricaLive: What are some of the flagship research projects you are coming up with at Regent Business School?
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: We have adopted four items as part of our research agenda. The first item explores what value creation means in the era of the fourth industrial revolution. The second is enterprise development, and the third is ethical leadership. The fourth area has to do with impact research. Our research must be socially applicable and not just left to rot in academic journals.
AfricaLive: What will you consider success in the next five years for Regent Business School?
Dr Ahmed Shaikh: We want to be an enabler of global prosperity, co-creator of knowledge, a hub of life-long learning, and catalyst of innovation. I remember an elderly woman enrolling her grandson for one of our programmes once. Her only request was for us to “make him a great man”. That moment has stuck with me for years. It opened my eyes even more to the role we have to play in this society. If in five years we can look back and say that we have changed the fortunes of many families, then I will be fulfilled.