AfricaLive In Conversation with Prof. Pamela Dube, Vice-Chancellor of Central University of Technology.
“We aspire to play a significant role in research and innovation, fostering breakthroughs in technology, science and sustainable practices.
“Our long-term goal is to contribute significantly to solving Africa’s unique challenges and global issues through our research endeavours, and to be a catalyst for meaningful social change.”
- Innovation for Societal Transformation: Innovation goes beyond routine ‘new initiatives’ aspects, translating research into tangible applicable solutions. CUT’s flagship projects in the healthcare sector showcase the commitment to “transforming lives through innovative healthcare solutions” such as specialized wheelchairs and medical devices.
- Challenges and Solutions in Commercialization: Commercializing research ideas poses challenges, including “reluctance to expand” and concerns about intellectual property. Effective partnerships, mentorship, and learning from others can overcome these hurdles and enhance the commercial success of university-led ideas.
- Future of Education: The Blended Approach and AI Integration: Anticipating the future, Prof. Dube emphasizes the shift towards a “blended approach” in education. Acknowledging the transformative potential of AI, CUT is focused on the importance of “responsible use” and continuous monitoring to integrate technology effectively into the educational landscape. Equity of access and diversity of delivery modes for learning , including requisite support for sustained student success is key.
AfricaLive: As we speak with education sector leaders we note each institution has its unique teaching philosophy and impact on the community. What defines your university’s DNA?
Pamela Dube: Our identity stems from being a university of technology, one of six in South Africa among the 26 universities. We are conscious of our role, particularly in addressing immediate societal challenges within our communities.
Our identity is closely linked to the vision of being a leading African university of technology shaping the future through innovation. Innovation is key in translating our research into products usable by our communities. We aim to be change agents, fostering meaningful societal transformations in Africa.
That’s what drives our identity – being relevant and part of Africa’s transformation through innovation.
AfricaLive: What does innovation mean to you? And what does it mean within the context of South Africa?
Pamela Dube: Yeah, that’s a good question.
It’s not just about business as usual in terms of our core business and teaching, learning, and research. It’s about coming up with new initiatives that are very consonant with our role, especially to society and our partners in industry.
What we do in terms of knowledge and research can translate into something innovative in our work with industry in such partnerships and how they, for instance, inform our curriculum.
It’s not just the traditional curriculum based offers we’ve been making. The quality of what we produce is always mindful of new developments and trends economically, socially, and otherwise.
AfricaLive: Your focus is very clearly on addressing societal challenges in South Africa and on the African continent. Would you like to highlight some of the specific initiatives or flagship projects that UT has undertaken?
Pamela Dube: Yes, quite a number of them, particularly around healthcare initiatives that affect our niche kind of research and endeavors, such as additive manufacturing or 3D printing.
We contribute significantly in terms of transforming lives through innovative healthcare solutions. For instance, the products from the research done in additive manufacturing are tangible products that assist with, for instance, building wheelchairs for rural communities where mobility is a problem with the normal kind of wheelchairs found in public hospitals. It involves adding specifications that would help with dealing with the tough terrain in rural areas.
This comes out of innovative healthcare solutions, and it’s tangible.
We also work on medical devices for instance, for patients requiring facial or reconstructive surgery, especially those unable to afford such treatments in public hospitals.
Additionally, we run poverty alleviation programs that promote entrepreneurship among students, equipping them with the necessary skills and fostering self-employment opportunities.
We are very clear that we need to create self-employment opportunities and business skills. We do this being mindful that it contributes to poverty alleviation. It starts even from working with high school students where we have a kind of incubator where students can come with ideas.
It begins from high school but extends to different faculties within the institution, involving staff members and community members with ideas. They are provided with support in terms of incubation, taking them through to commercialization depending on their level.
We have a comprehensive innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem that we utilise.
AfricaLive: Very interesting projects you mentioned in the healthcare sector. These are great examples of how, as an institution, you can focus on finding real-world solutions rather than being solely academic. You mentioned the focus on entrepreneurship and commercialization.
We observe a relatively low success rate in the commercialization of research ideas on the African continent. Perhaps this is an area where partnerships are required to make things work. How do you believe ideas coming out of universities can be commercially successful?
Pamela Dube: I think there’s a lot of potential, but it’s not always realized though.
I think a lot of it starts with universities and their researchers being very much into exploring their research ideas. They are happy being able to apply them to small pilot studies and leave it at that. But when it comes to patenting and commercializing, it tends to take time. You’re right in saying there’s a huge need for effective partnerships in terms of that, with industry and other universities that have had more experience in that area.
Internally, there tends to be this reluctance to expand and grow bigger because people are so attached to the research and the work and the small scale tangible products that have come out of it. But this reluctance needs to relax sometimes to expand.
I think some of it, from what I’ve experienced, comes from distrust in terms of how much ownership the originators of the idea will have, in terms of intellectual property. We do support faculty and students in patenting and doing all of that, but somehow they really have to be taken through each and every step to appreciate that.
There will always be recognition for what they’re doing, even if the products expand beyond just the university and become a source of income not just for the actual research department or unit, but for the whole university and so on. It really means going each step of the way, and people get to see results.
I don’t think we have made great strides in providing enough results for people in small institutions like ours to really believe that there is payoff in expanding and commercializing.
And that’s where we really need more opportunities for mentorship and learning from others in terms of commercialization and technology transfer.
The knowledge is there, but it takes time. There are a lot of opportunities for us locally and within the region to partner and expand in terms of what’s possible within commercialization of our research.
AfricaLive: What importance do you place on building ties with industry?
Pamela Dube: That’s a priority, especially as a university of technology. Our programs and curriculum are informed by industry needs and aspirations. It’s a mutual relationship.
In terms of trends and development, there’s a lot for us to learn from industry, and vice versa. It has to be a reciprocal partnership. So we do that. We ensure that our programs aim at great learning experiences where our students have opportunities for internships with our industry partners.
We facilitate these internships and learning programs with industry partners. We also offer professional development programs for industry employees, fostering constant engagement and understanding for a common goal of job creation and economic growth. It starts at the curriculum design stage, addressing the world of work experience our students go into through integrated learning, offering an exchange of learning programs with industry.
Also, we initiate continuous professional development for our students within the industry, starting from induction. This way, students appreciate how the industry works. I know I’m speaking generally about industry and its different types, but at the basic level, that’s how our relationships start, and we involve industry role during the incubation stage of new ideas.
AfricaLive: And I think, as we’ve touched on, when we’re looking at many of the challenges we face socially and environmentally, these are not areas that one institution can resolve on their own.
Pamela Dube: Yes.
AfricaLive: So, having strong partnerships with industry, as well as between universities and institutions from different parts of the world, is absolutely vital. Partnerships are challenging. I would like to ask you, what do you consider to be the building blocks of a successful partnership?
Pamela Dube: Yeah, that’s always a good question. One of the biggest aspects for me is about who sets the agenda and what it is that you’re working towards in the partnership. It has to start on a mutual basis. What tends to happen is if one partner has more financial resources, they might dominate the project or invest more, almost assuming they will call the shots.
The building blocks are being clear on the terms of engagement as partners and the mutual benefits that would come out of that partnership, whether it’s with industry, local partners across the spectrum, or international partners, including universities or other role players and funders.
The agenda has to be clear upfront.
Then, of course, the goal is the main thing. What do we want to achieve as part of this partnership?
AfricaLive: We mentioned the importance of international partnerships. What does internationalization mean to you?
Pamela Dube: That’s my favorite part. I’ve mainly worked in internationalization I think, for me, it’s very much about the realization that we cannot solve global problems on our own.
We may have the skills and be custodians of knowledge as a university, but it’s not enough.
There is more to be achieved when we work together on a global level. Even the local problems tend to have slight differences, but they tend to be quite common across the globe.
We cannot solve all the challenges we have only at a local level. The partnerships with international role players are very important. So, for me, the whole exchange of knowledge and knowledge transfer at an international level and the diversity of it across disciplines only serves to enrich what we’re trying to achieve as a sector in terms of education, research, economic growth, job creation, and also in terms of really solving the bigger global challenges. We need to work together as bigger international partners. Now, with all the developments that have happened with online education, internationalization is not necessarily limited to international travel. There’s a lot of internationalization at home that is already taking place.
I love the developments in terms of how we can have sandwich programs. Even collaborating on qualifications with other universities, starting to share online platforms for teaching.
We can have a program at this university together with students from another university internationally, and it might even be multilateral. It doesn’t even have to be only students from one part of the world. We could even have partners within the continent, partners in Europe, or the US.
There is so much that is possible, especially following the increase of online or blended learning, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
AfricaLive: Do you think the future of education is the blended approach?
Pamela Dube: Very much so. It’s coming with challenges in terms of the recognition of programs and accreditation but it’s a reality that we have to deal with. I think it’s just opened more opportunities for access to higher education, especially for people who are not able to study full-time.
We’ve always had part-time students, but now there are more options for people to integrate what they are doing with the possibility of also learning in a blended approach. So, I think we’re going to be moving more and more in that direction. We just need the supporting instruments to be able to achieve that effectively, like accreditation, access to technology, digital devices, and data.
It should be affordable. Not only for part-time students, but also for first-time entry students who may want to have that option and still access higher education without being fully on campus all the time.
AfricaLive: On a related point, making the best use of technology is key to education. It’s also key to what we’ve been discussing: successfully having an impact and tackling societal issues.
Presently, technology and artificial intelligence are causing excitement and concern in equal measure!
I would like to ask you as a university of technology, how do you seek to prepare your students for the workplace of tomorrow, particularly when we’re not even sure exactly how that workplace is going to look and how we are going to make use of technology in the coming years?
Pamela Dube: Yeah, I think we’re very conscious of that. I mean, we’ve given the first page in terms of how technology develops and while you’re still learning about new developments like GPT, then you find out there’s even more happening, even on that platform.
We try to be proactive. I mean, just talking about GPT and the issues around it, you can’t hinder that kind of advancement. It’s about how you use it. So we’ve had to look at formulating guidelines and policy and guidelines in terms of responsible use of such developments like GPT and making sure that it’s monitored and always keeping constant monitoring in developments.
There’s always a possibility as developments happen, even within that. I don’t mean hacking, but there are other loopholes. You think you’re on the right track with your guidelines, but then there are other loopholes that come. So even while we see it as a positive development, loopholes like, for instance, somebody being able to finish a whole MBA course with AI and succeeding in it, is also worrying.
So there are always constant developments that you need to be always monitoring. We can’t cover everything in terms of preparing students for the world of work, but I think through our work-integrated learning and the different partnerships we have with industry it is also an opportunity to look at the trends, what’s happening there and monitor that our programs are fit for purpose.
We are very much aware of how the developments with AI don’t necessarily mean that AI is going to take over.
We need to find integration and always be aware of the possibility to grow and improve its implementation. Even my inauguration lecture was about technology and human integration, advancing it positively while considering the responsible and ethical use and social impact of AI developments. For us as a university, technology and science advancement are promoted, but we are conscious of the need for monitoring human involvement in integration.
AfricaLive: What has surprised you the most in your first year as a vice-chancellor?
Pamela Dube: What has surprised me the most, my goodness… within this particular university it’s really been the readiness for transition.
People have been looking forward to leadership transition and firming up who the next vice-chancellor is and what they’re bringing. Everyone has been very supportive. Usually in this line of work, you come into a place and people are just watching and wondering what you’re going to bring but I’ve kind of detached from that. There’s a concerted effort to work together.
It’s a lovely surprise. It’s almost too good to be true. Almost every stakeholder body seems to be excited about the transition and committed to being part of it. So, if you want to call it a surprise, then it’s a lovely surprise. I think it’s not always the case at this level. People are very quick and eager to just see what you’re going to change and are reluctant to change.