AfricaLive: How would you define the identity of the Central University of Technology? What makes up your DNA?
Prof SS Mashele: Ours is a university of technology that has a vision 2030 which says that our school should be the leader of innovation in our region. It’s not just about producing publications for us, it’s about ensuring that we produce studies and solutions that are felt in our communities.
AfricaLive: Though our research output as a continent is hovering below 2 percent, our universities are producing some good research. Why do you think our research projects struggle to make an impact on the lives of the common African man and woman?
Prof SS Mashele: I believe we struggle especially in our innovative research projects because we lack a proper innovation ecosystem. We have lecturers and professors who spend most of their time trying to produce papers. If we begin encouraging and incentivising them to focus on innovation, we can start producing commercially viable products. We must also emphasise the need to work with industry.
In most African countries when you go to industry, there is no appetite for doctorate degrees. Most CEOs do not have doctorate degrees, so you have to wonder where they turn to when they have certain challenges. You may find that they want to go to universities, but can we accommodate all these business owners and offer them everything they need? That’s a question to ponder and is the reason we have incorporated entrepreneurship in all our learning. We are also knocking on industry doors seeking to know the challenges they have so that we can help.
By assigning students to these companies to assist, they could end up getting absorbed there or they may end up becoming business owners. In a nutshell, we need to build an ecosystem that takes care of our students so that innovation intersects with society in a way that moves us forward.
AfricaLive: What does the word partnership mean to the Central University of Technology?
Prof SS Mashele: In this day and age, the last thing you want to do is operate alone. Every university must take the approach of trying to solve a problem and not just awarding certifications. This approach must be multidisciplinary so that you can pull people from different disciplines to come in and work with you. This is the only way to have an impact that lasts the test of time.
AfricaLive: There is often a disconnect between the output of higher education institutions and the needs of industry. How do you work with the private sector to form the partnerships required to advance your nation?
Prof SS Mashele: We first begin with the curriculum. We have worked on a curriculum that ensures our students are ready to hit the ground running when they get to the industry. It has taken us some time to tweak our curriculum and to consult widely with industry to ensure our students are fit for purpose. We also send our faculty members to the industry so that they understand what that world is all about.
It’s a strategy that helps us avoid obsolescence because most faculty members in universities do not have industry experience. If your whole career has been spent within university gates, then you are only teaching theory and you risk teaching outdated methods to students. Faculty members also get to have a glimpse of the problems in the industry and then they can formulate case studies and research problems.
AfricaLive: We had a discussion with Prof Kobus Malan from Keystone University in Zambia. He attributed part of the disconnect between universities and industry to a conflict of interest, where some in industry reject university-born innovations because they are not profitable enough. How true is this in your context?
Prof SS Mashele: It can be a tough balancing act that can be remedied by good policies. The excesses of industry or any other stakeholder must be checked through policy. This is the way we protect student innovators and all intellectual property. People should declare properly so that there is no ambiguity or vagueness. Profit and sustainability can exist together, we shouldn’t struggle to understand this in modern times.
AfricaLive: What does internationalisation mean to you? Where do you see opportunities for partnership with international academics and universities?
Prof SS Mashele: Technology has provided us the opportunity to internationalise. You don’t have to spend much money to communicate with people who are overseas. We are having a clear and concise conversation in this interview yet one of us is in Bloemfontein, South Africa and the other is in Nairobi, Kenya. This is what the internet has done for us. If we can have a conversation like this across borders, we can have lectures being offered online from anywhere in the world.
We can also market our school so that we can bring in students from other cities across the world. Internationalisation is being enabled by technology for us in a way that is cost-effective and practical. With a lot of students studying off-campus, it means less crowding and we can also now reallocate some of our staff. We have also been able to save on space without the need of thinking about expanding our institution by buying more land. We are very glad about this. Internationalisation has enabled us to incorporate fourth industrial revolution concepts into our curriculum.
In the Free state, we had the first summit on 4IR where we spoke about how we can incorporate 4IR to drive the economy. We are prepared to host a second summit where we will bring in different stakeholders that will see us develop a very inclusive A.I course. Students will have the necessary skills to compete in a digital world thanks to the course. The course will be offered in conjunction with Microsoft and aims to train A.I engineers.
AfricaLive: What role can your university and the higher education sector play in combating climate change and advancing the sustainability agenda?
Prof SS Mashele: Climate change should be at the centre of our plans in Africa. Some in the continent may prioritise feeding their families and doing business while performing non-sustainable practices. Our role is to educate communities and teach them that sustainability should be part of their lives. They need to know about climate change and what that could mean to their children. We have launched a SMART village campaign in conjunction with the Princess Gabo Foundation.
The initiative will see us hand solar panels to people in remote areas while we educate them on sustainability. We are looking for funding to help us develop more solutions in renewable energy. The funding will also help us get people employed and incorporated into the solution in some way. We can bring in our students to a particular community to assist in issues like sustainable farming. We have SMART farms in our university. Students can impact communities by training farmers on new smart techniques to run a farm.
AfricaLive: What are your primary goals for 2022?
Prof SS Mashele: We have to learn from COVID-19 and see what we can do better going forward. It is now conceivable for some of our staff to do all their activities from home. With that done, we can redirect some of our resources and spaces to other departments and uses. This will have to come with us improving our teaching and learning platform. The pandemic caught everyone by surprise and we had to scramble to get our courses online. As we develop our e-learning agenda, we must ensure we have proper online courses that attract students.
It has to be user-friendly and must also give students a full CUT experience. It’s about digitising our operational backbone so that students feel at home away from home. Our government has given support to the country’s digital transformation platform and we are now digitising all our activities. A well-developed and thought-out e-learning strategy will see us enrolling even more students from all over the world.
We also want to step up our manufacturing abilities because we are the leading university in this region when it comes to the production of medical devices. We have an ISO certification to manufacture devices that help people who have been involved in accidents for instance. The Department of Science and Innovation has pumped a lot of money towards this effort.
AfricaLive: Looking to the future of education on the continent, are we going to see the end of the brick-and-mortar style of education?
Prof SS Mashele: The future of education in my opinion has to be blended. We still need people to gather around the table even with all this technology at our disposal. We don’t want to raise a generation of people who avoid face-to-face interactions with other people. You need to see people’s facial expressions and hear them talk live. This is why the future has to be blended. Students can come in for lectures in person or attend virtually. Though the brick-and-mortar resources will subside, we still need some of that because students must congregate and see each other face to face. We must also be able to accommodate students who live in distant remote areas or those that come from poor backgrounds. Brick-and-mortar is, therefore, not going away anytime soon.