South Africa’s higher education institutions are marred with multiple challenges including soaring student debt, budget cuts, the issue of colonial education and graduate unemployment but for one man, these issues are not insurmountable.
Inside Education interviewed Vice-Chancellor and Principal for the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Professor Tshilidzi Marwala in his boardroom at UJ main campus this week.
“I think the Chinese are very important,” said Marwala and places two books on the table, China’s President Xi Jinping’s book, The Governance of China III and Professor Adekeye Adebajo’s book, The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes.
“Technologically, the Chinese are very important. They are basically the factory floor for the entire world with all sorts of implications for our own country where we do not make anything. We make very few things. This shirt is made in South Africa,” he he said.
“But nothing else so we need to understand what the Chinese are thinking if we are going to craft our own strategies that will counter what they are doing because what they are doing has a huge impact on our economy,” said Marwala.
In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed members of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The commission was meant to assist South Africa’s government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution. Ramaphosa chaired the commission with Marwala as the deputy Chair. The aim of the commission was to identify relevant policies, strategies and action plans that will position South Africa as a competitive global player. It included 30 members of eminent persons from different sectors of society and reflects a balance in gender, youth, labour and business, including digital start-ups as well as digital entrepreneurships.
We finished the work and made recommendations, said Marwala. Adding that one of the core recommendations included investing in human capacity development in areas of the 4IR.
He said these are areas of artificial intelligence, blockchain, engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine.
“As a result of this, here at UJ, we offer everybody – across different fields of study – an introductory course in artificial intelligence,” said Marwala
“And in the next few weeks we will be announcing that UJ will offer the course, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, for free to anybody who wants to study AI,” said Marwala.
Marwala was born in 1971 at Duthuni Village in the Tshivhase region of the Limpopo. He matriculated from the Mbilwi Secondary School, a school known for producing 100% pass rates for its matric students since 1994 and over 90% of matric exemptions since 1997. The secondary school is known for its excellent results in mathematics and science. Marwala was awarded a scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town and would be transferred to study in the United States after six months.
“In the US, while studying mechanical engineering, I was expected to take 12 semesters of human and social sciences. So, I took acting classes, psychology classes, the history of South Africa and economics classes.
“And that is quite important, because many of the concepts now in artificial intelligence, such as the reinforcement learning algorithm, I learned in one of my psychology modules. So, this speaks to the importance of multidisciplinary learning,” said Marwala.
He said the importance of multidisciplinary learning is why UJ has made Artificial Intelligence and the Africa Insights Module – where students learn about African Politics, African economy and African languages – critical coursework study for all students.
Adding that it is very important for students to understand the African continent and its problems so that they can think start to think about the solutions while at universities. He added: “If we do not prepare ourselves through multidisciplinary learning, these new jobs are just going to be out of reach for many of our people and we are going to have a problem,” he said.
Marwala said the Africa by Bus project is one of the many ways students have seen and experienced the challenges facing the continent while using their new acquired knowledge to start and formulate new solutions.
“These buses have been to Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Namibia. This is because Africa’s problems are on the roads, not in the air”, said Marwala. He added that before the coronavirus pandemic hit and lockdowns were enforced across African countries, they had hoped to go to Ghana by bus.
“For me, decolonization just means we have to claim our identity,” said Marwala.
Being number one and the education precinct
Prof Marwala was inaugurated as UJ vice-chancellor in 2018. At the time Marwala said he was going to take UJ into the fourth industrial revolution.
In his interview, Marwala said his priority now is to make UJ number one in university rankings in South Africa and in Africa.
He said South African universities must be at the forefront of driving the implementation of 4IR.
When I came to this job, the University of Johannesburg was number six in terms of research output. Today we are number two, number two, I almost said number one, I am in a hurry,” said Marwala.
He quipped about how, when the results came out, a prominent Vice Chancellor, “even wrote an opinion piece saying, ‘it is not about quantity, it is about quality’. I was disturbed,” he said with slight laughter in his voice. “We think we are doing high quality work. The VC said, ‘Yes, you are number two, but I think you guys are concentrating on quantity not quality’. A week later, they research impact rankings By the Times Higher Education came out and said we were ranked number one, not only in South Africa, but in Africa,” said Marwala.
Marwala was speaking specifically to the World University Rankings created by Times Higher Education. These take into account the reputation of research done by universities and include into consideration how often papers produced by universities were quoted around the world.
“Here we are absolutely leading,” said Marwala.
The vice-chancellor also spoke of some big ideas. Marwala told Inside Education that UJ has bought the Media24 building in Auckland Park. He said his university, together with the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) are working in collaboration to turn Auckland Park into an education precinct.
He said the two institutions would speak to the City of Johannesburg and request an increase of police visibility and also request a special dispensation so that UJ and Wits security can be on the road so that our students can be able to walk from their residencies whether on campus or off campus. They should be able to walk to the local shops and to 44 A Stanley. We might even have a nightclub – a controlled nightclub because, this is part of education, said Marwala.
“I mean, when I was a student, you know, I went to nightclubs. In those nightclubs, it was all students, and it was also very educational. Strange, we used to go to night clubs and discuss fuel mechanics, he said.
Marwala said, even though the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the economy and subsequently the National Budget, UJ has done well.
Research shows that universities have been experiencing declines in government subsidy on a per capita basis over the last few years. This, together with government’s proposal for the regulation of tuition fee increases, the cuts in funding for research and innovation and the challenges related to student funding have driven growing concerns over the sustainability of the institutions and the sector.
Earlier this year, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande announced that because of Covid-related challenges, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme had a shortfall of R5.7 billion. Nzimande said the NSFAS shortage will be paid by R3.09 billion in voted funds previously allocated towards university subsidies and the infrastructure money.
But UJ managed to weather the storm.
“I must confess we have thrived even before Covid (sic). Our pass rates have improved. Our finances are very, very good. When I came here, the council-controlled endowment was R1.1 billion. Now it is close to R2 billion.
At the same time, we have bought the Media24 building [in Auckland Park] and we have built two residences in Soweto. We are now on the third and these. This is this is like R200 million type of residency,” said Marwala.
Marwala said the endowment fund is money stored for rainy days, in case government say, ‘hey, we do not have money,’ he said.
“But at the same time we are investing in solar infrastructure. These are actually classic examples of what leadership in the 21st century should look like,” said Marwala.
“This is how we become number one,” he said.
Infrastructure and Solar
The South African Energy Crisis is an ongoing period when South Africa experiences widespread rolling blackouts as supply falls behind demand, threatening to destabilize the national grid. The rolling blackouts, referred to as load shedding, began in the later months of 2007 and continues to this day. Eskom has attributed these rolling-blackouts to insufficient generation capacity.
Marwala said people do not realize the very close link between 4IR infrastructure and energy.
He said South Africa needs to invest in 4IR infrastructure. Adding that UJ needs a 5g virtual network there so that the institution can have fast connectivity.
“I think universities must have their own spectrum. I think health organizations must have their own spectrum.
“The University of Johannesburg generates 13% of its electricity from solar. This is going to be 21% at the end year. This will allow us to introduce a very, very interesting project – the electric bus,” said Marwala.
Marwala, the grandson of a scientist
Marwala starts his day at 06:00am with a 14-kilometre walk at UJ’s Bunting Road campus in Johannesburg. He said sometimes, his students join him on these walks. After his one-hour walk he drives his son to school
“He reads for me a book on the way because I believe that reading is very, very important,” said Marwala who himself has authored 23 books, two of which, he says, he wrote while in South Africa.
“I am proud of my books, they are fantastic books. Leading in the 21st Century and Closing the Gap are absolutely good books.
“In Closing the Gap – my very beautiful book, I talk about how I learned engineering from my grandmother who could not read and write. She was a scientist. My grandmother was a scientist. The saying, ‘You cannot gather water that has spilled and put it back into a container,’. This is what they tell us in Science. This is the second law of thermodynamics,” said Marwala.
Adding that this is a powerful concept that also speaks to decolonising our education system and decolonising the mind.
Marwala has also written another book due to come out this year July.
“The book is called Leadership Lessons from the 50 Books I read. Former President Thabo Mbeki wrote the foreword of the book. I believe decolonization means you have to get people more informed. That is what decolonization also means. That is one aspect of it,” said the UJ vice chancellor.
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