In conversation with
Professor Ahmed C. Bawa

Chief Executive Officer | Universities South Africa

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FDI Spotlight: We are familiar with your distinguished academic career and most recent former role as the Vice-Chancellor of the Durban University of Technology, which brought an entirely new set of challenges. What was your motivation to become the VC of this institution?

Professor Ahmed C. Bawa: South African universities exist within a social, political and economic context and each university finds a niche in this environment. Durban University of Technology (DUT) appealed to me very much because it is an institution that appeared to understand the importance of its academic project as being closely linked to the local and provincial economy and to the vast challenge of addressing the issue of social mobility, in the context of such high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality. I was thoroughly enthralled to be working with a core of academics who saw this as an engine for their work.

There is a very strong set of indications that South Africa’s higher education system punches above its weight. The key question was how to galvanise the resources of the institution to address these challenges and in this light we embarked on a number of significant projects – building the research profile of the institution especially in applied areas, building a university that was focused on the intellectual, social and emotional growth of its students and building structures and an ethos that facilitated a long-term view to engagement with the communities around DUT, with industry, with local government and with the non-governmental sector.

The role of South African universities is to be a catalyst for big national projects, like providing for social mobility and dealing with the challenges of students who come from abjectly poor backgrounds. While there are many challenges we have to address, it makes the academic space exciting to work in. In terms of social mobility, the beginning of every year heralded powerful student protests related to financial aid. While there are some serious recent crises we face, such as the escalation of student activity on the Fees Must Fall Movement, these are by no means new to universities such as DUT.

However, like the other universities, there is another set of more deep-seated concerns we had at DUT. For instance, we think the higher education system is systematically under-funded, and we are anxious about that. Additionally, we are not producing sufficient numbers of PhDs in the key areas to address the sustainability of the professoriate yet. Although we are creating more PhDs, few of them remain in academia. This is a problem, I think, we have to address vigorously especially as in certain areas of specialisation at DUT such as Maritime Studies there simply aren’t any doctoral programmes.

South Africa’s university system was designed for a very different time when the school system worked for a small group of people who went to the universities. We now have students who come from a seriously dysfunctional schooling system, which has had enormous ramifications on how we shape our academic programmes. At DUT this provided the impetus to create a vibrant General Education Programme and a strongly integrated teaching and learning technology system that provides an integrated learning environment for students and their professors and lecturers. The idea is to produce a culture of active learning and teaching and to simultaneously ensure the preparedness of our students for this digital era. Many of DUT’s students would not have had exposure to such technologies at their schools.

The system now has a participation rate of 20 % of 18 – 24-year-olds, which is not as much as we would like, but between 1994 and now the student numbers have doubled from 500,000 to 1 million. We have moved from an elite system to a mass education system, and that brings with it a whole range of very significant challenges. At DUT itself the annual growth rate was pegged at about 3.2 %.

I loved my role as the Vice-Chancellor of DUT and had the opportunity to work with fantastic academics and students. However, in my current role at Universities South Africa (USAf), I can engage with the entire sector. I am connected in a much broader fashion with the higher education and training sector.


What are some of the strategic goals you identified, and what do you wish to accomplish in your leadership here?

Professor Ahmed C. Bawa: We have four major thrusts. Firstly, we try to be the voice of the sector, meaning that whenever the university system as a whole has to respond to any issue, we are called on to do so. We depend heavily on the support from the universities and other institutions to help us to build our arguments and responses. We work in close collaboration with the universities and the Board is constituted of the 26 vice-chancellors.

Secondly, we develop policy and respond to policy initiatives from the state. For instance, at the moment we are trying to understand what a reasonable level of funding would be for the higher education system. Normally, every year an extra 8 % is tacked onto the budget; However, what we have not done for a long time is calculate what a decent and doable number for the cost of higher education would be, in the context of a very tight fiscal moment in South Africa. Therefore, we are looking at what it exactly costs to produce an engineer, for example, or how much we should be spending on sporting excellence, if at all.

We are looking at all factors, including the cost of student housing. Should universities have residences in the middle of a major city where there is sufficient housing provided by the private sector. Very often universities subsidise their residences. This influences how institutions set their fees and how students are funded by the National Students Financial Aid Scheme. And of course, a big part of this narrative and report is how much of that funding should be subsidised by the state and how much of it should come from student fees.

Thirdly, we work in. the area of advocacy, which means we work with the government, industry, communities, and civil society, to promote what the universities in South Africa do. We get called on to represent the higher education system, and advocacy is an important role for us.

Fourthly, we have an interesting programme called HEAIDS, which reaches out to every university and TVET College to improve the capacity of the institutions and the students to deal with HIV and AIDS. HEAIDS reaches hundreds of thousands of students and is very effective. The structure is funded through the Department of Education and Training, along with the Department of Health, and it also gets funding from the Global Fund and UN AIDs.

Fifthly, we run the Higher Education Leadership and Management Programme, which tries to build the capacity of the system in producing new generations of academic and administrative leaders. It is tailored to the demand; we are careful to listen to what the universities are saying about their needs. For example, we often host two-day programmes for Vice-Chancellors and Deputy Vice-Chancellors on how to manage complex institutions or to expose them to ideas that have emerged in the management of crises.

Fifthly, we have a range of projects funded by external agencies, such as our current study on why it is difficult to produce a sufficient number of women at the senior leadership level in universities. Of the current 26 Vice-Chancellors in South Africa, only 3 are women, which is deeply concerning.

Another example of these projects is to understand the impact of higher education on the economy. We want to make it as clear as possible to the state that investment into this higher education sector is vital; that we get out much more that is put in.

And yet another example is a project with the Department of Science and Technology, that looks at what makes it possible for young emerging researchers to succeed as academics. Too many of them struggle to get into the professorial ranks, and we are trying to understand what the impediments are and what would enhance their ability to progress.


In your opinion, what would be the best funding mix for South Africa’s universities?

Professor Ahmed C. Bawa: The dependence on subsidies and fees is a deep worry to us. At least 90 % of South African households find higher education to be unaffordable. This completely negates important purposes of higher education and so it is vitally important for the state to support students from such households. On the other hand, state subsidy is about the 50 % level to cover the full costs of running universities. While this is substantial what is of deep concern is the decline in subsidy per capita. This has a debilitating impact on the system. The funding mix depends heavily on which institutions you are looking at. For example, there is much stronger dependence on state funding at teaching-intensive universities. If one goes to the research-intensive or research-led universities, like the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Cape Town (UCT) or University of Stellenbosch, the dependence on subsidies is considerably less. At UCT the funding is approximately split four ways: 25 % from fees, 25 % state subsidies, 25 % research income, and 25 % from investment income.

Within teaching-intensive universities there is growing research enterprise, and there are increasingly strong links between these institutions and industry. That is encouraging. Universities are opening up and seeing the opportunities of engagement with communities, industry and businesses, government and NGOs as an important part of their knowledge enterprises.

The Universities of Technology have a model of compulsory work-integrated learning opportunities. Engineering students, for example, have to spend one year of work-integrated learning in the industry before they graduate. What this means is that there has to be a very strong relationship between institutions and companies so that the experience of having the students work in industry is worthwhile to everyone involved.


While not an uncommon issue, there are constant concerns expressed that there is a gap between what the higher education system produces and the needs of industry. The common complaint is that the output of universities does not match those specific needs. What steps are you taking to engage with this?

Professor Ahmed C. Bawa: On the one hand, universities cannot operate with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, while on the other hand, there is the danger of simply responding to industry needs. We have to remind ourselves that the role of universities is not simply to produce what industry needs. It has to build engaged, critical citizens. It has to contribute to large national projects like nation-building, building an ethical society, creating new cohorts of intellectuals, and so on. The other challenge of course, is that it is often not enough to educate students for the current context. One of the challenges that faces universities is to ensure that students are also engaged in learning that reach into the future, that acknowledges that the world of work changes rapidly.

But universities must be sensitive to this concern. There are several ways universities are dealing with this issue. At DUT, for example, every single academic programme has an industry advisory board, which means that there is a continuous flow of information in both directions. In some areas industry leads, such as with the tourism industry. DUT’s tourism offerings and department are huge, mainly because the tourism industry knows what it needs, what the university offers and they constantly renew each other. The tourism industry in Durban and KwaZulu-Natal are at the cutting edge of the global flows of tourists. This is a good example of a fruitful interchange between the education sector and industry.


There have been some changes South Africa’s business environment, particularly in terms of the development of an entrepreneurial spirit and a thriving digital economy. Do you think there is a window for the universities to work hand in hand with this new entrepreneurial activity?

Professor Ahmed C. Bawa: Firstly, It is certainly an option we constantly explore; However, two points should be raised here. Firstly, there is an issue around institutional culture; to what extent do universities inculcate entrepreneurial learning opportunities for students in their degree programmes and then perhaps more importantly, how does the university itself engage in entrepreneurship as a real-life example to students.

As an example, the University of Natal was founded in the midst of the sugar industry and the harbour port of Durban . This led to a very direct and fruitful connection between the University and these industries. Many other academic enterprises were established in other areas on the same basis. Now, as I mentioned, educational institutions are continually servicing the industries in their environment, as well as opening themselves up to servicing and partnering with other sectors.

Secondly, I believe there is a problem with the demand sector which has to be corrected. Here is an example. Around 30 % of the municipal sewage systems in South Africa are in some level of crisis. Nationally, our universities have a strong water research enterprise, one which can compete with the best in the world. However, despite the knowledge and training, we have in this area, there is no traction with local governments to understand that this problem can be solved, that the solution is available.

We need to develop the capacity of the demand sector, and the way to do that is to focus on research and development locally so that the innovation demand stays at home. We should not be importing innovation if at all possible; we should be developing it here. And intensive engagement with local governments and communities may help to address the development of the demand side.

At the moment South Africa invests 0.7 % of the GDP into research and development. That percentage has dropped from the previous 1 %, in part due to the GDP growth which means the investment target itself has changed. The tax system needs to be reviewed to enhance the investment by the private sector on research and development.

Over the last 10 – 15 years, we have seen the extent to which money changes behaviours. We used to have the Innovation Fund, which was a state-led initiative to drive investment and reinvestment into innovation and research and development. We need to revisit this Fund and try to learn from it what went wrong and what went right.
I think there is a growing entrepreneurial spirit in and around universities. For example, there is a strong IT department at DUT, and a phenomenal number of ideas from students emerged in App development competitions, hackathons and so on. Many of those ideas have now been taken up by the likes of Microsoft. I am optimistic about the fact that there is a generation of young people coming through the system who are much more entrepreneurial in orientation.


What do you believe South Africa could offer to the world and what do you think the approach to internationalisation should be?

Professor Ahmed C. Bawa: There are multiple ways of looking at the approach to internationalisation. Firstly, around 7 % of students in the education system are international students, and we set a target of 10 %. For the next few years, we cannot increase that number very much, due to the number of local students who do not have access to higher education.

We operate very much at capacity and unless there is a significant increase in local capacity it is unlikely that there will be a large increase in international students. Having said this, we should over the next 5 years or so see the growth of international students from 7 % to 10 % of the total student enrollment. There is a storm coming regarding local demand for access into universities; for many young people, universities are their one true step out of poverty.

A second approach is trying to understand how to establish relationships in and between existing and new global coalitions and partnerships. For example, we have a strong commitment to what has been called the BRICS Network University. Additionally, we have recently been to Japan and had a significant meeting with the Japanese Association of National Universities about a sector to sector approach.

Internationalisation opens up the way for us to address some of the most complicated problems we face. Even though those issues are intensely local, they are also profoundly global. For example, climate change has enormous implications for agriculture in South Africa; it is, however, simultaneously a global problem. One challenge I want to take up is to continually put forward the idea that we should develop international or global scholars – scholars who have empathy with and can operate in different environments.

From our point of view, internationalisation is not about generating additional income; it is about deep-seated desires to broaden the academic base, create new generations of global scholars and to have students travel backwards and forwards.

Having connections is important. We recently met with Universities UK about the possibility of a joint venture in establishing doctoral schools. We will have joint supervision, course giving, students will travel back and forth, and we will especially share our laboratories.


How confident are you in the future for South Africa?

Professor Ahmed C. Bawa: The country has gone through a period of high enthusiasm, expectations, and euphoria during Nelson Mandela’s presidency, to an era where we have realised that our democracy is not as deep as we thought it was. There are deep structural problems with our system, and these issues are playing themselves out in a range of areas, including the economy. I believe that we did not truly realise how difficult it would be to get rid of poverty and growing inequality.

Our nation-building project is not done yet. However, as painful as it is, we are excellent at forthrightly talking about these issues. One challenge we face is understanding how we can transcend being stuck in the current level of discussion and rhetoric. If you encounter a problem, find a solution, and then work on it; this is something we need to learn in South Africa.

We are all frustrated at how corruption has taken root in government and the private sector but what we do know is that as a nation we are resilient and, when the pressure is on, we find solutions.

The level of corruption at the national level has generated such a paranoia about corruption that at an institutional level it will be next to impossible for people to be corrupt at universities. There are so many checks and balances, in fact, that it has now reached the point that they may not be fully implementable. We must come to grips with the fact that new generations of leaders will emerge that differ greatly from the ones that came before. We have to work hard to ensure that we continue to grow social institutions, which provide the architectures for democracy. We must protect the Public Protector’s office, the judicial system, and the universities. The struggle of creating a vibrant democracy that delivers on its promises is not over. It is unacceptable that we continue to have such high levels of poverty at the same time that there are such substantial and stubborn levels of inequality.