Ten reasons why South Africans should support world-class universities

| September 6, 2010
By Professor Loyiso Nongxa

South Africa runs the risk of being left behind, of losing talented people and of being marginalised by the global community if we do not consider, as a national priority, the need to invest in truly world-class universities that prioritise locally and perform globally.


1. Invest in the future

We inhabit a global context characterised more sharply than ever before by unpredictability, risk, the emergence of complex problems and the unreliability of social institutions to regulate our world sufficiently. The fluidity of our environment is reflected in, for example, innovations in high-risk financial practices that prompted the economic meltdown, viral mutations that give rise to pandemics and variations in climatic patterns that threaten to disrupt our livelihoods.

We have to think differently if we are to leave a lasting legacy for our children, and our children’s children.

2. Address the challenges of the 21st century

We view the 21st century as a century of knowledge. Yet, in South Africa, only about 20-25% of our young people attend university. We know that about three million young South Africans between the ages of 18 and 24 are not in school. They are unemployed and unemployable. Their future is bleak.

3. Compete in the global knowledge economy

South Africans have always been ambitious and we believe that, given the opportunity, we can compete with the best in all areas of human endeavour. Yet, there seems to be a lack of ambition when it comes to academic achievement. When will we produce more Nobel Prize winners in Economics, Medicine and Literature?

4. Develop successful leaders

We should take a personal interest in ensuring that students at any institution receive high-quality education, because they will one day treat our children when they are sick and design bridges that will not collapse.

5. Be globally competitive

The academic programmes, teaching and research of world-class universities should enjoy international respect and recognition. Today, global university ranking systems are used by governments and higher education institutions as a measurement of competitiveness and reputation.

6. Attain, develop and retain talent

The most coveted resource in knowledgedriven economies is the academic talent of its citizens. World-class universities have a high concentration of highly talented individuals – both students and staff. Youth with high talent are attracted to researchactive, talented academics and highly productive academics relish the opportunity
of working with gifted young people.

7. Advance the frontiers of knowledge generation

We need to provide platforms for the development of multinational, multidisciplinary, multisectoral intellectual projects that generate the high-level scarce skills required to address development in our country and on the continent.

8. Design quality learning environments

Academics and students require quality learning environments, which include but are not limited to world-class infrastructure, advanced research equipment and opportunities to collaborate with counterparts around the world.

9. Develop beneficial partnerships

Universities need to bring together the distinctive capabilities of industry, higher education and civil society to work with government to tackle the challenges of the present and the possibilities of the future. We need to develop beneficial partnerships that make meaningful contributions to the advancement of the public good.

10. Create a culture of innovation

Highly specialised forms of knowledge, combined in novel ways, are needed to anticipate our emergent world and to respond quickly with nimble innovation. Only innovation will enable us to craft desirable futures, and for this we need a greater proportion of the population with high-level skills that can respond and adapt to complexity.

Similarly, we need high levels of investment in top-end research. Our future, and that of future generations, is in our hands. Our inability to develop and support  worldclass universities today will indeed have dire consequences for our children, our country and the contribution we make to the world.

Professor Loyiso Nongxa is the Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

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Category: Spring 2010 Edition

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