The report goes on to say “the overall wellbeing of nations is vitally dependent on the contribution of higher education to the social, cultural, political and economic development of its citizens”.

But universities worldwide are facing unprecedented challenges, from funding pressures through to large-scale reform and private-sector competition. In SA, especially, our tertiary institutions have to be all things to all people. They aim to produce world-class leadership and research, but also graduates with the skills required by our growing economy. They often also find themselves needing to address broader social challenges, student poverty being a major issue leading to frustration and social unrest.

Whereas universities used to be the preserve of the academic elite, attracting 5%-10% of our population, our government now desires that 50% of South Africans obtain a university education. But are there enough jobs for the graduates stepping out into our job market? High unemployment among new graduates is a worldwide phenomenon — in the US, for example, a student can spend $350 000 on a tertiary education, and still wash dishes at Starbucks.

What can be done to address the challenges facing higher education in our country? In my view, universities should consider the following:

  • Regular think-tanks should be convened between the business and tertiary education sectors to determine the skills required for business growth and economic prosperity. Universities are often preoccupied with “vanity” status, believing their main role to be to produce global leaders. We believe they should become more responsive and less introspective.
  • South African universities should partner with their international counterparts, exchanging not only programmes, but also students, and exposing them to international perspectives. This will not only raise the profile of our institutions globally, but will enhance the ability of graduates to find suitable employment.
  • The demand for university leaders who have corporate and commercial experience is increasing globally. Universities are complex organisations facing a multitude of challenges, and often require leadership with a wider range of skills than those generally found in tertiary institutions. A model including both academics, who can oversee research excellence and continued thought leadership, and business executives, who can take care of day-to-day operations, may be one worth considering.
  • With new technologies enabling online courses, I believe we need to accept that not everyone will be physically entering the hallowed halls of academia to obtain a tertiary education. Many school leavers will want to get into the job market without delay, and with the rise of online learning and “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), is it possible to complete a degree while pursuing a career.

The dynamic sector of higher education touches everyone’s lives by delivering economic prosperity and promoting social cohesion. There are many challenges facing our higher education institutions, but with challenges come opportunities. I believe the universities that capitalise on these will be able to produce not only the next generation of world-class leaders, but also the much-needed skills relevant in today’s market.

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