UCT in a Time of Challenge and Opportunity

Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe says digital readiness and inclusion need to be key themes across all our universities.

UCT is ideally placed to help South Africa, Africa and the world negotiate the next few decades. For me, they are defined by pressing challenges and a wealth of opportunity in areas such as inclusion, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and Africa’s youthful population.

It is the potential synergies between these trends that excites me, but these will not occur automatically, and we need to consider the role of higher education institutions in general, and UCT in particular, in steering us towards the societies and economies we need.

Regarding inclusion, we were not doing well in this regard before Covid. In recent decades, inequality has increased in many countries, conflicts and social tensions have flared up, and escalating climate impacts have threatened livelihoods and generated large migrant populations.

The pandemic has intensified these challenges, because it has disproportionately impacted the vulnerable and excluded.

We should, I believe, look more assertively to the social economy and to social entrepreneurs as one mode of recovery and transformation.

Social entrepreneurs apply a business-world focus on innovation, efficiency and technology to social, economic and environmental challenges, often with startling and inspiring results.

Social economy organizations are also often labour intensive and offer job creation possibilities that capital intensive industries do not.

And social entrepreneurship, with its twin foci on making a successful business and changing the world for the better, complements the work of government in providing services, and resonates with youth, with women business owners, and with small business owners, the backbone of any successful economy.

There is potential for us at UCT to do even more to support and grow the sector, which in turn will help ensure our economy becomes more sustainable, inclusive and resilient.

We also need to do our utmost to ensure we have a university where all our students can excel, regardless of the circumstances they come from, and where all students feel welcome and supported.

In this regard I’d like to acknowledge UCT, alumni, government, business, and foundations for supporting students who are struggling financially.  I also think there is scope to reimagine some aspects of higher education using technology to foster inclusion and entrepreneurship, and I think these will be important conversations going forward.

It is important that our higher education institutions clearly define and promote the values of inclusivity, from a leadership level down, and that we develop students who value inclusion and equality as well as diversity. 

Turning to Africa, the continent’s youthful population, accessing learning and information through smartphone and related technology, supported by economic integration through the African Continental Free Trade Area, gives us a real chance to leapfrog into high productivity and prosperity.

There is work to be done, however. Across Africa, less than 4% of people have a university degree, and less than 25% of the currently enrolled students are pursuing STEM qualifications, and so there is a risk that the continent will fall behind as the 4IR picks up pace.

Higher education institutions have a leading role to play in skills, curriculum development and partnerships, to ensure we have the capacity to take advantage of digital opportunities.

Digital readiness and inclusion need to be key themes across all our universities.

We must also develop research capabilities that help us address local and regional challenges more effectively. There is a wealth of indigenous African knowledge that can help unlock seemingly intractable problems.

Taking our local experiences, and finding local solutions using technology, can not only improve our domestic circumstances, but can also make us leaders and innovators globally in many fields, such as recycling, and universities like ours have an important contribution to make.

It is also important that we welcome African scholars and students:  our own prosperity, development and the diversification of our own economy is inseparable from the growth of our trading partners on the continent.

Values and ethics matter a great deal and need to be placed at centre of how we think about our economic system and the institutions that form part of it.

In my own life and thinking, I have been deeply influenced by the concept of ubuntu, the idea that we are interdependent rather than isolated beings.

We must, together, explore what ubuntu means in the context of universities in South Africa.

For me, it suggests the idea of the embedded institution: a university that plays an active part as a centre of learning and study, but goes further than that in producing full human beings, committed to knowledge, to democracy, to the work of development.

As chancellor I would like to see the University of Cape Town grow even further as an inclusive centre of excellence, embedded in the society around us, nurturing compassionate citizens and helping to prepare Africa take its rightful place in a technology-oriented world.

If we truly do our best, urgently, tirelessly and selflessly, then we will maintain and nurture what is already excellent at this great institution, and further shape it into an institution for the future, for our children and their children.

Author: Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, Chancellor of the University of Cape Town

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