Prof Andrew Crouch

Vice Chancellor | Sol Plaatje University

Key Points: The Evolving DNA of Sol Plaatje University

  • Sol Plaatje University is a developing community-based university in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, with a social justice mission to produce human capital in areas of local need like education, data science, and desert resilience studies.
  • Here, AfricaLive speaks with the University Vice Chancellor Prof Andrew Crouch to identity opportunities for partnership and collaboration with the institution.
  • The University launched several research centres tackling globally-relevant topics like applied data sciences, entrepreneurship, climate change adaptation in water-stressed environments, and African languages and creative writing.
  • New academic programs will be established like a School of Therapeutic Sciences for nursing and occupational therapy, and doctoral programs across all disciplines to expand research capabilities and impact.
  • Outreach facilities provide training to local communities and small businesses on entrepreneurship, digital skills, and business operations to drive economic development in the region.



AfricaLive: We would like to first focus on the identity of your organisation as it perhaps goes through a change as you hit this 10th anniversary. Of course, each institution of higher education and research has a different philosophy and a different community to serve. So, how would you define the DNA of the university?

Prof. Crouch: The DNA of universities is an evolving process determined by intrinsic and extrinsic factors. As a university only in existence for 10 years, in the first decade, I have seen it largely as a social justice project producing human capital in areas of direct need in the Northern Cape and broader South Africa. The University primarily focused on education in these initial years.

Presently, about half of our students are in education programs, but also in areas such as data science for the Square Kilometre Array (which is located in the Northern Cape), as well as commerce, retail, and accounting. Our current program offering consists of four faculties – in the Humanities, Natural and Applied Sciences, and Economic and Management Sciences and Education. We started small and are building outwards.

We plan to open a School of Therapeutic Sciences focusing on nursing, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and related fields. Although we have a big mining sector, we do not have immediate plans for a mining school. Instead, we have partnered with WITS University for a bridging program where students start a science program here and transition into engineering at that institution.

We see ourselves as a community-based university doing research, teaching and learning based on local problems and needs, but with a global relevance goal. For instance, data science is an international issue and an area we established early on. We recently graduated our first data science masters students, showing a degree of program maturity. By the end of 2024, we will have doctoral programs in all faculties.

If asked about the University’s DNA, I would say it is a community-based focus with a strong social justice imprint, addressing local issues that must inform the global context. One example is heritage studies, given our location’s heritage richness in terms of First Nations people like the San and Nama, where we have a concentrated presence. Another example is our focus on entrepreneurship, as we have high unemployment levels, to ensure students leave not just job-ready but as entrepreneurs.

A final passion area for me is what I term Desert Studies. Our Northern Cape peoples have shown great resilience, and I believe we can teach the world about resilience in water-stressed environments which is afflicting more regions due to climate change. I hope this overview captures what we aim to achieve at Sol Plaatje University.


AfricaLive: There is indeed much for us to discuss in this interview session. The desert studies and water-scarce environment focus exemplifies how local knowledge can become globally relevant, for example in addressing the increasing desertification in southern Europe. South African knowledge can be vital in tackling the growing crisis there. 

As a new university at the 10-year point, introducing new research elements seems an exciting opportunity to be agile and modern from the ground up, compared to institutions over 100 years old perhaps struggling with outdated traditions.

Going forward and looking at research areas, tell me about the decision-making process as you determine future focus areas.

Prof. Crouch: You make an excellent point about the opportunities a new university offers, but also the challenges of building from scratch. Structures taken as given at established universities had to be constructed in our first decade – the governance, program qualification mix, and other foundations to create new knowledge. In the South African context, we must be strong on governance to ensure public money is spent properly and optimally.

As a new university, we can learn from the successes and mistakes of established institutions. When conceptualizing programs, we are unencumbered by historical contexts. For example, at traditional universities, decolonization of the curriculum is always a question, whereas we start with a clean slate and can embed such thinking from the outset as programs roll out. We are also cognizant of being agile and aware of disruptions like the COVID-19 pandemic that impacted global higher education.

Over the past five years, Sol Plaatje University has focused on the three pillars of a South African educational institution – teaching and learning, building focused research programs, and integrating the community engagement component as a scholarly endeavour within our community approach.

Additionally, we aimed to establish a digital, agile and sustainable university from the start. This benefited us as a young university during COVID-19, enabling us to transition seamlessly to online learning within six weeks without major difficulties.

In the past year, we have set the research agenda for the coming years by establishing several centers. The Center for Applied Data Sciences builds on our undergraduate data science program to develop solutions around data science issues through various partnerships, which we can discuss further.

The Center for Entrepreneurship Development and Research focuses on entrepreneurship development and research, leveraging undergraduate and postgraduate resources to make entrepreneurship a core part of what we do.

The Center for Risk and Vulnerability, soon to be the Center for Climate Change, is a Department of Science and Innovation asset center. This positions us to concentrate on water-stressed environments, desert studies, desert economies, and related areas we are actively researching.

We also launched a professional development center to repackage postgraduate courses into shorter programs for partners to access specific degree components of interest.

We launched the Center on Creative Writing and African Languages, aligning with our heritage emphasis as we serve indigenous language groups like Afrikaans, Setswana, isiXhosa, Nama and San. This will be a key focus for the next five years.

While these centers will be our primary research thrusts, we continue work in education, early childhood development in rural areas, and other fields that can impact the African continent. Though starting small, we are making exponential progress in growing our knowledge generation outputs.

AfricaLive: Having such standards and interesting study areas in place from the very start is certainly key. I know you mentioned earlier that partnerships are vital for finding solutions to challenges, though they can be difficult to manage successfully, whether university-industry or otherwise. What do you view as the building blocks of a successful partnership? What does partnership mean to you?

Prof. Crouch: For me, a successful partnership must be based on the principle of equality, regardless of the relative size of the partners. We make this clear when signing agreements to avoid the “big brother” approach some global North partners have adopted, with an “extraction mentality” to hollow out the knowledge base of the country.

Whether with another university or industry, the approach is the same. Existing partnerships began from academic-to-academic connections, with individual staff initiating contacts, collaborations and exchanges. Late last year staff visited Japan and Amsterdam through such individual agreements.

We also have university-to-university partnerships, mostly local so far as we are just starting that journey, though a couple are international.

Then there are our university-industry partnerships, largely intended as long-term arrangements where industry becomes an anchor funder for activities we want to build over time. We have agreements with banks, mining companies, and others.

This includes more traditional international university partnerships – I recently signed an agreement with the University of Namibia, for example.

As a young university, we also focus on partnership as a means of building a legacy fund by engaging industry partners historically associated with the Kimberley area. A notable example is De Beers, the diamond mining company operating here for around 130 years. We view them as a long-term partner, as the mines will be around for 60-100 more years.

So, we have short, medium and long-term academic, university and industry partners. We also participate in African university networks, recently joining one focused on using digitalization to improve university efficiencies, a strength of ours.

While open to more international partnerships, equality and clarity of the partnership identity on both sides is paramount from the outset.

AfricaLive: You mentioned having the ability to be a digital university from the start. I’d like to look at technology issues and how they will shape South Africa’s future. 

With artificial intelligence’s rise, there are widespread concerns communicated that human beings are not at the center of technology adaptation. Universities clearly have a role here – what is your thinking on ensuring technology benefits the communities you serve?

Prof. Crouch: Let me first address our internal stakeholders – the university staff. In building a technology-enabled, digital university, we must constantly account for technological developments. Once you operate in this environment of using technology as an education enabler, you must continuously stay abreast of advances.

In our early stages, we focused on utilizing technology basics to improve and enable the internal education process. This included providing laptops for all students, which was unique in South Africa a decade ago, and implementing state-of-the-art learning management and enterprise systems to efficiently perform daily work with technology as an enabler.

We are not yet optimal, as technology constantly evolves. Just when you understand one area, a disruptor like artificial intelligence emerges. However, our approach has always been to embrace technological developments and incorporate them into our practices. Regarding AI specifically, we are having Senate-level discussions on how to embrace it and ensure we leverage its positive qualities rather than just grappling with challenges.

This is not just our issue – it is a worldwide problem. So, we benchmark with colleagues globally to understand their approaches. It is a continuous process of not shying away but aiming to embrace and manage technological shifts as enablers of the education process.

This mindset extends to our infrastructure. I joke that you can sit anywhere on campus, even in a tree, and be connected. Our students appreciate having software, 24/7 global connectivity and information access. We have a digitally enabled library and strive to provide the latest eBooks and resources within our budget constraints.

For external stakeholders, we extend our capabilities through various centers. The Center for Entrepreneurship and Rapid Incubator, inherited from a a sisterinstitution, is being reconfigured as a learning center to expand education access. This center engages local communities by training and enabling small and medium enterprise startups through programs covering business setup, digital competence, accounting principles and more. The aim is to provide the same quality campus experience at these outreach facilities.

AfricaLive: Given your daily focus on South Africa’s many challenges, how confident are you in solutions being found for the nation’s positive long-term development when you consider the overall picture?

Prof. Crouch: I am optimistic because while every country faces challenges, including geopolitical issues impacting the world, education faces similar trials globally like diminishing budgets yet increasing delivery expectations.

As a university catering mainly to poor and marginalized students funded through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which itself faces challenges, I am optimistic we will survive these adversities by building on a foundation of quality and excellence. The strong application interest, with numbers rising tenfold over three years, demonstrates this.

I believe we will have more clarity on the country’s direction after the next election. The past 30 years have seen some areas struggle with well-publicized corruption and energy issues, prompting our self-sufficiency efforts in energy, water and other areas. However, this university enclave plays an important role providing hope and education to local and Northern Cape communities.

Overall, resource availability is not the main issue. My son is an economist and his view is that our balance sheet shows sufficient funds. I think he is right.

The core problem has been corruption and sub-optimal spending priorities.

However, compared to other nations facing disruptive mass migration from natural disasters, our challenges position us to actually achieve a turnaround if we act as a nation.

South Africa has tremendous human capital, with universities striving to uplift the nation during difficult periods. On a final note, I am not just speaking about Sol Plaatje University as a 10-year-old institution still benchmarking itself. If we assess the South African university system against peers of similar age globally, we are faring well.

Looking across the African continent, South Africa has a relatively strong university system making significant contributions to knowledge generation. Our universities are well-managed, producing internationally competitive graduates – it is no accident that around 10 of our small pool of 26-27 public universities rank in the global top 1000.

No country can claim a perfect university system. However, as a higher education leader with a national vantage point, I can confirm we have excellent universities producing quality students who prove their caliber at the world’s top 100 institutions, which provide positive feedback.

In my over 40 years in higher education I have witnessed the national and international evolution of higher education. Universities play a vital role in any country’s development as microcosms of the communities they serve. However, they must transform, remain agile, but most importantly, continually pursue excellence and quality.

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