Newsmaker: Forging a new academic path

2017-07-02 06:00
University of Johannesburg’s vice-chancellor designate, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. Picture: JAN POTGIETER

University of Johannesburg’s vice-chancellor designate, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. Picture: JAN POTGIETER

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The man tasked with taking the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to greater heights believes that money should be no barrier for the best students to access quality higher education.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the university’s vice-chancellor designate, will take over from Professor Ihron Rensburg in January. Rensburg has led the university since it was formed in 2005, out of Wits Technikon and Rand Afrikaans University.

Marwala, who has worked at UJ for nine years – initially as the executive dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, before becoming deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation – also says calls to decolonise education are valid.

“I have always understood that South African education is too expensive if you look at our gross domestic product per capita. So, the issue of access to quality higher education is important. It is an issue we need to work on. It is an issue that, as vice-chancellor, I will be working on to make sure that education is affordable and accessible for those who deserve it and can show an aptitude for success,” he told City Press this week.

“Money should not be a barrier for their accessing education because it has all sorts of implications for our economy. It will mean that we are not putting our best foot forward.”

The university will continue to raise funds for poor students and those in the missing middle, defined as those with an annual household income of less than R600 000, for whom the institution raised R147m this year.

For Marwala, the decolonisation of the curriculum means that European education was good and has served the country well, but it was inadequate.

“We need to bring to the fore other knowledge domains. We need to bring the African experience into our curriculum and knowledge system,” he said.

“We need to make examples that are accessible to us to explain concepts and understand them better.”

The world of work is changing

Marwala was born in Duthuni village outside Thohoyandou, in the far north of Limpopo. His father was a teacher. He was close to his grandmother, Vho-Tshianeo, who wove mats, made clay pots and inspired him to study engineering.

His fascination with the way she dedicated so much time and skill to making her pots inspired his PhD in engineering, obtained at Cambridge University in the UK. His grandmother would test the effectiveness of her pots by tapping on the finished products to listen to the sounds they made.

There is a similar test used by engineers.

“That was the motivation. That is how bridges and nuclear facilities are monitored – by listening to vibrations induced by hammer ... We call it an impulse,” said Marwala.

He said Rensburg had done a lot of work for UJ, which, under his watch, increased its research output by 20% in 2015/16 compared with an average of 6% produced by other universities.

Marwala’s leadership will be more of the same, but with some key differences. “It is about continuity and change – continuity in the sense that we have done great things and some of the work he introduced is not complete.”

This includes adding a medical school, which is set to open in two years, and plans for a business school. Marwala also plans to take the university into the “fourth industrial revolution”.

“The world of work is changing. This means that engineers will need to understand social sciences and humanities, like I was trained to do in the US.”

To this end, Marwala plans to introduce a degree in computer sciences and culture, and commercialise the university. “The university is a business. That is key. We need to take UJ to industry and bring industry to UJ. I am well poised to do that because I started my career in industry.”

Despite this, he insists that staff and students will be at the centre of his project, and he wants UJ to have a reputation for producing the best graduates, who are highly sought after by employers.

“Our students are going to be in the front of the queue when it comes to preference of employment.”

Already, he said, about 25% of black chartered accounting graduates were being trained at UJ.

“We are one of the biggest producers of high-quality engineers. Our law graduates are continuing to shine in commercial law. But we need to orient a significant number of our graduates to have a mind-set of not having to look for jobs, but creating jobs for others.”

Marwala has also vowed to work closely with student leaders, saying his student activism and past political involvement have made his relations with students better.

“We are [ranked] the number five university in the country. We were at number seven not too long ago. Soon we will be number three and by the time I finish as vice-chancellor, we will be number one,” he said.

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  education

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