In a rapidly changing world, the leaders of South Africa’s institutions of higher education are facing a number of significant pressures and issues, not least of which is the devaluation of these institutions’ global currency. If these challenges are not urgently addressed, South Africa will not be able to continue producing the level of skills and talent required to grow our economy. What can be done to support our higher education sector and its leadership?

I believe we need to find answers to three main questions:

How can our higher education institutions remain globally competitive?

South Africa has some top-quality universities, but they have been slipping in global rankings in recent years. Tertiary education leaders have to steer highly complex organisations, dealing with the sometimes competing demands of unions, diverse student bodies, funders, and government bodies. They need to play a political game, and are perhaps not always focused on navigating the intricate metrics of the global ranking system.

Another factor to remember is that ultimately, the success of a university’s alumni will drive its success as an institution. Is our higher education sector still producing global leaders? I would suggest that barring the odd exception, the answer is no. The global leaders are coming out of the likes of Harvard and Oxbridge, not South African institutions.

I believe universities can address this issue by turning their focus outward – by looking at education through a global lens, encouraging collaboration efforts with leading academic institutions elsewhere in the world, and endeavouring to attract top international students, especially from across Africa. We also need to relax our Visa laws – we know of at least one university which has had to send back visiting academics due to South Africa’s stringent Visa requirements.

How can we ensure our higher education remains relevant in the marketplace?

What should education be focused on – teaching people how to think, or training them to find jobs which will assist in growing our economy? The age-old debate is today even more relevant: should a university be an ivory tower or should it be producing much-needed skills? And are the North American and European educational paradigms relevant to the requirements of leadership and the marketplace in South Africa and the rest of the continent? Institutions need to be very clear about whether they are producing tomorrow’s global thought leaders or are preparing people for the realities of our own current economic climate.


I believe there is a place for both – higher learning should be about learning how to think, but it should also be about turning out employable graduates with appropriate technical skills. Industry leaders should be in constant engagement with university leaders to convey the skills requirements of various business sectors and of our economy in general.

How can the gaps in high school education be addressed?

High schools are not equipping students with the skills they need to enter universities. The lowering of the matric pass rate has resulted in tertiary institutions playing catch-up for the first two years of students’ academic careers. It also impacts on the likelihood of graduates finding employment when they are leaving higher education without certain skills that they should have learnt years back in high school.

While tertiary education institutions can’t do much about the education crisis in high schools, they can engage in outreach programmes, focusing on younger learners. The seeds of aiming towards obtaining a tertiary education need to be planted at primary school level. Learners need to know what the standards are – obtaining a matric pass rate is not going to be enough to get them into university

It is no secret that South Africa has a serious shortage of highly skilled employees. To close this skills gap to enable our economy to grow, we need to urgently find solutions to the challenges higher education institutions are currently grappling with. We have the potential for excellence in higher education and to be world-class, producing not only what our economy needs but also the global leaders of tomorrow.

Leon Ayo

Leon Ayo is the CEO of Odgers Berndtson South Africa based in Johannesburg. He works within all industries and sectors in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Previously he was a partner in Odgers Berndt...

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