Henk de Jager

Vice-Chancellor | Central University of Technology

AfricaLive: In your opinion, what does it mean to be an African University?

Prof De Jager: When you are defining any university, there must be a local context. Any university, in my opinion, shouldn’t even think of national or international appeal before looking at the local context. You must be able to serve the needs of locals or be locally relevant before you step out there. So in the context of an African higher education institution, it should look at the challenges in Africa and thinking about solving them in innovative ways. 

The institution has to provide value through teaching and research in a way that not only positively impacts Africans but also people in other parts of the world. Ours is a university that embraces the uniqueness of the continent, its people and its being. Africa suffered for many years under colonisation, and many of the countries are very young. It is up to Africans to reclaim their space because a lot of the structures and systems still have colonial undertones. Universities can play a role in changing this and giving the continent its identity back.

 

AfricaLive: What is the role of your organisation in bringing forth the next generation of skilled South Africans that the country needs to prosper?

Prof De Jager: In South Africa, we have twenty-six public universities, and six of them are centred on technology. In the past fifteen years, there has been a particular mandate for universities of technology in this country. We must meet our mandated standards and objectives if we are to be taken seriously. We all have a focus on staying career-oriented. This means focus on studies that are relevant to the job market and a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At least half of our enrolments as a university are in the same field; this is what we have achieved in the last year. In traditional universities, you will find that less than half of the students are training in the same field. Our other focus is on work-integrated learning. This is learning within the workplace for a number of weeks after some time in the classroom looking at the theory part of it.

The other piece is in terms of research. Our research must be that of an applied nature. You will find in some of the traditional institutions that their research is what is known as the blue sky research; which is research for the sake of just passing grades. Ours must be applied so that it can serve and change the community. Our innovation ecosystem is taking from our research work heavily. It is taking the research and findings and turning that into viable products that have commercial value. We are in existence to have a direct impact on society, so we need to get busy and start making impactful changes.

 

AfricaLive: What are some of the goals you want to achieve while at the helm of the institution?

Prof De Jager: I arrived here in 2016 at the height of the ‘Fees must fall’ agitation. It was a very challenging period for any vice-chancellor who was acting at the time. I do think though that it was a wakeup call for higher education institutions in South Africa. When I took office, my theme was re-imagining Central University of Technology (CUT). I wanted to focus on building a transformational, entrepreneurial and model university of technology in South Africa. I envisioned a university that could make a lasting impact on the social-economic situation of our region. We are now in the process of making changes to our re-imagining focus to draft a vision 2030 plan for the university. Our institution challenges the students and staff to think outside the box and challenge the status quo.

We are striving to create a future where people will look at CUT many years from now and see an institution they can rely on for technology solutions. Most traditional universities have about thirty research centres, while we have only six. Having only six should not discourage or deter us because we will make those six model research centres that others will look up to in awe. Many people would argue that a university’s function is teaching, research and community engagement. I argue that your academic programmes must be part of your core business.

 

AfricaLive: Africa is not really seen as a producer of original research, and a lot of people are working to change this perception. What do you think is the future of African research, and what is your role in that?

Prof De Jager: The world does not know about our ingenuity and the new information we are generating and we can only blame ourselves. If you look at the new knowledge generation in both public and private institutions across South Africa, you can see progress. Our contributions may be small at the moment, but they are significant. 

There are indeed great initiatives in Africa, and it is up to us to show it to the rest of the world. We may not have the volume of innovative output like the developed countries, but there are many unique pockets of excellence that are better than the rest of the world in some cases. We embrace the fourth industrial revolution as an institution. Our love for new technology led us to create the Centre of Rapid Prototyping Manufacturing (CRPM). CRPM focuses on additive manufacturing with a specific focus on ISO accredited centre for the manufacturing of custom made medical implants. We want to have the only ISO accredited CPRM Centre of its kind, in the African continent. We pride ourselves in ensuring quality in this area so much so that our colleagues in Botswana are keenly watching. Botswana Open University, Botswana University and the Botswana International University of Science and Technology have all sent delegations to us in the last two years. The delegations came because their institutions were impressed with our progress in the area of additive manufacturing and were trying to benchmark.

We have made tremendous progress by sealing a partnership agreement with M.I.T (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that will be part of the M.I.T Africa initiative. The initiative pretty much aligns with your objectives as AfricaLive, which is to grow Africa economically, technologically, and educationally. Being recognised by M.I.T gives you an idea of the quality we have as an institution. 

We are also embracing Robotics at a level that most colleges around us just aren’t. There is a focus on the Internet of Things (IOT) as well, where one of our research centres is working on drought prediction in Africa. This pretty much uses the internet to support our farmers and emerging farmers. Renewable energy is also big on our agenda. We very much focus on developing our solar energy capabilities. This institution has its own solar energy farm, which produces about 10 per cent of the energy we consume as an institution.

We are also into the concept of smart cities with ours being an idea of a smart campus. We find ourselves often trying to push local governments to embrace our ideas by inviting some officials over. They have gotten to see our ideas in action through our smart bin concept, e-waste plant, and tyre recycling plant. I also can’t go on without mentioning our focus on biotechnology. We have a huge group of environmental scientists who have great work in the area of indigenous medicine. CUT does not only have a focus on sciences but also humanity. Focussing on technology alone is dangerous for Africa. We must look at the effect these technologies will have on humans. We should embrace new technologies, but we still some very basic challenges in this continent in terms of water and sanitary conditions.  

 

AfricaLive: What in your view is the future of Africa in this machine-oriented world we are walking into, and how can education ensure that technology and humanity co-exist well together?

Prof De Jager: I am very positive about Africa because I see our potential and our greatness. The continent has been grappling with the after-effects of colonialism, but we shouldn’t let that derail us. I see a lot of positivity and energy from higher education institutions across the continent which should be replicated by governments. Some governments such as Ethiopia, Mauritius, Ghana and Botswana are getting it right because they have sorted out their political leadership very well. 

When it comes to changing technologies, people lose sight of the fact that us humans are developing these technologies. It is, therefore, up to us to take control, especially if you work in the banking sector; which will be hugely impacted. We have to take into consideration that some industries will be affected negatively and plan accordingly. Bank transactions have dropped significantly since the advent of mobile money and other technologies. Low-level workers are also set to have their jobs taken over by machines. These things must be taken into consideration when we talk about technology.

 

AfricaLive: What message would you like to send out to readers, and what projects is your institution involved in that excites you the most?

Prof De Jager: What the world requires from institutions like ours is critical thinking and out of the box thinking. We go out of our way to cultivate that in students as much as possible. If our students can develop their critical thinking skills well enough, they will be able to figure things out and solve their own problems. I believe our work-integrated learning programme will do wonders for our students. 

We also have very good partnerships in our additive manufacturing wing of focus, willing to collaborate in whatever way. We also have a project on innovation and entrepreneurship running. We are of the view that though not everyone will be an entrepreneur, every student needs to gain an entrepreneurial mindset that will help them in other disciplines. We also have an idea gymnasium that has attracted a lot of attention. Students bring in their business ideas, and if the ideas are deemed viable, they get admitted into the business incubator. In the incubator, they can spend a maximum of three years growing their business before they are let out into the commercial space. Our strong business focus is to create an environment where creativity can be unlocked. We are in discussions with the department of science and technology, the department of trade and industry, as well as local and provincial governments; to establish an innovation park. The innovation park will focus on new technologies and allow students to have a glimpse of what is possible.