AfricaLive: Please give our readers a brief background of North-West University and tell us about the DNA of your institution.
Prof Dan Kgwadi: Our University was formed after a merger between a historically black institution of higher learning, and a historically Afrikaans institution. We, therefore, have a unitary focus to make this an institution one of superior academic excellence, with a commitment to social justice. We have three campuses, and sometimes there is a temptation to look at them as different entities, but we constantly need to keep the bigger picture in mind. In our approach, we want a unitary institution irrespective of backgrounds that ensures equality.
AfricaLive: Under your leadership in what direction will this institution move in the coming years?
Prof Dan Kgwadi: We are guided by a national development plan set out by our government. As an institution, we have to ensure that we remain relevant and that we operate in congruence with the plan. Our contribution is in teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement. As much as we strive to become a globally acclaimed institution, we have a sharp focus on local engagements. We have done well to ensure that our internationalisation agenda does not undermine our community engagement activities.
Through collaboration with other universities and institutions internationally, we are part of the global higher education community. Our internationalisation activities include student and staff exchange and cooperation in academic, research, cultural and sports matters. This university is also proud of the continental inclusivity we have displayed. Many of our students and staff members come from other African countries, which boosts our profile on the continent. We don’t approach our diversity as some kind of favour we do for other nationals; we see it as a vital piece to our quality. Quality learning through diverse input has seen us make the list as one of the top seven South African universities in research. We produce about fifteen thousand graduates a year to help provide the skilled men and women the country needs to solve our challenges.
AfricaLive: Being an institution that focuses on research, what should the South African higher education landscape look like as far as research and development?
Prof Dan Kgwadi: We have to be as open as possible to new ideas and technologies to secure our future. We have to make an impact with our science and technology focus, as well as in our social sciences agenda. We have wide-ranging niche areas that are all geared towards helping our government and private sector resolve challenges. Our institution has thirty-four niche research entities with our newest one looking at environmental matters. A good number of our students are on our long-distance e-learning programme which is accessible to students all over the country. Our desire in the near future is to extend this programme to students all over Africa.
AfricaLive: As we continue to see changes in technology, how should universities adjust and what is your strategy to remain relevant in these changing times?
Prof Dan Kgwadi: There has to be a mindset change that will enable us to make pivots that will align with the times we are in. Of importance to us is ensuring that people have access to education. The ‘fees must fall’ revolution was an eye-opener for educators in this country. At the centre of the revolution was the issue of lack of access due to high fees, as well as curriculum-related grievances. We are, therefore, very aware of the issues raised during the ‘fees must fall’ struggle, as well as the changes coming up due to the fourth industrial revolution.
We aren’t just aware, we are working to make things right so as to remain relevant and competitive. Our infrastructure must support the consumption of ICT through long-distance programmes which will solve the issue of access. Special attention must also be given to the relevance of our overall product. Our curriculum is being redone in conjunction with industries to come up with a better product. The process is happening through regular meetings with industrial representatives to ensure we get input and feedback.
Meetings with industry officials have helped us considerably close the gap between academia and industry, which is seen in most jurisdictions. The law fraternity in South Africa for instance, has made it clear to us that they are unhappy with the calibre of lawyers being produced in the country. Discussions with the likes of them help us create new curriculums or revise current ones for the good of the country. While implementing changes in curriculums, we have to introduce regulators into the debate because such moves have to be approved by them. Neglecting to involve regulators and policymakers could hinder us because it may take a year or two to effect changes, and a lot could change by them. Working with industries is not only about addressing gaps and grievances; it’s also about the alignment of processes. Our processes must speak to what both parties want to get done; otherwise the hurdles will remain intact.
AfricaLive: When it comes to incubating growth and working with the industry, there is a need to raise funds to fund research and also develop revenue-making products to boost the institution’s finances. What headway have you made in this regard?
Prof Dan Kgwadi: One of my deputy vice-chancellors has a title that includes research and innovation. The creation of a research and innovation position at deputy vice-chancellor level shows how much we value the discipline. We have seen the creation of entities birthed from partnerships between our researchers and industries. Our researchers and their counterparts from the industry come together and do activities that attract funding while utilising our facilities here. Through these synergies, we have been able to create products that have been successfully commercialised. We are also working with governments within the continent on environmental and engineering science projects. Some of the products we are producing are becoming very popular, and we are finalising procedures that will see us patent them. This approach came to the forefront even more in the way we are addressing various challenges emerging from the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. Based on inventions and initiatives by many of our researchers and academics, various partnerships have developed.
AfricaLive: When you think about the changes that technology is forcing in sectors like education and business, do you believe African businesses are ready to adapt?
Prof Dan Kgwadi: African countries are at different levels when it comes to the fourth industrial revolution. The changes we are seeing have to do with technology as well as budgets, and we are not all on the same page. Africa has a very high intellectual capacity but that can only be utilised if we do away with the silo mentality and work together. We have a wealth of Africans, making an impact outside the continent. If we can gather up the intellectual capacity abroad and that at home, we can create something special here.
AfricaLive: A lot of higher education institutions are looking at partnerships to boost capacities. What is your view on partnerships and your strategy for reaching more people?
Prof Dan Kgwadi: Most partnerships start with two individuals from different organisations getting on well and deciding to work together. It is okay for African institutions to seal MOUs with entities from far and wide, but if they don’t do the same with other entities within the continent, that’s a serious oversight. Our relationship with other African institutions must enjoy a priority. We have great relations with institutions in Namibia and Botswana. Our theology programme, as well, has attracted students from all over the continent. We also plan to do a wider outreach through our various research entities; we do this through what we call “whiteboard sessions”.
Though we have issues accessing rural areas due to lack of connectivity, we are happy with our outreach efforts thus far. If e-learning addresses the access problem, multi-university partnerships must address the curriculum problems. Universities in the continent must get rid of the silo mentality, and offer joint courses that are well thought out. We must also look at short courses that offer basic training as students build-up for high-level degrees. It has to be a long process of continuously devising ways to reach out to the people, or we will end being an ivory tower with little connection to the community. At times we can be slow as institutions of higher learning when it comes to changing technologies, and that’s because of bureaucracies that we are working on eliminating. We want to accelerate our adaptability to changing technologies with the help of our innovation hub. Our hub is looking to work with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research on some township projects once an MOU is finalised.
AfricaLive: What would success look like to you in the next five years or so?
Prof Dan Kgwadi: Our success will be measured by how much we do to advance the national development plan. If we don’t make an impact in this society, then we are not a success. If our products speak to our social change agenda, and the community ends up better; then we are a success. The NWU would also have realised its dream to be an internationally recognised university in Africa, distinguished for engaged scholarship, social responsiveness and an ethic of care.