Stellenbosch University – Prof. Wim de Villiers
‘An investment in education is still the best investment,’ says Prof. Wim de Villiers, the vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University. ‘The unemployment rate among graduates from Stellenbosch University is under 5%. If you compare that to the unemployment rate of the rest of the country, which is around 60% in the 18–35-year age group, one can understand why going to a good university is such an attractive prospect. But, owing to poor basic education outcomes, a lack of funding, or limited space at universities, the majority of school-leavers are unable to access higher education.
At the moment, South Africa only has 26 public universities with limited capacity. ‘Only 12% of learners get access to universities every year, and only about half of them will finish their studies, according to the figures from our own Faculty of Economics,’ explains De Villiers. ‘So, you have to ask yourself, what will happen to the majority of learners who are unable to go to universities, or who aren’t able to finish their studies.’
Of course, the #FeesMustFall movement that first emerged in 2015 has maintained over the years that free education is the answer to broadening students’ access to universities and to ensuring that more learners graduate – and although this might be true to some degree, South Africa simply cannot afford it.
However, De Villiers is hopeful that university degrees will become more affordable in the future. One positive change brought about by online learning is that universities will be able to accommodate more students in future. You don’t have the constraints of physical space, for example, how many students you can fit into a lecture hall, when you offer online lectures.
‘This year, we launched our new system, ARTLA (augmented remote teaching, learning and assessment), which is a step forward from the emergency programme that we launched during lockdown,’ says De Villiers.
Stellenbosch University will offer a mix of face-to-face learning as well as online learning, which means that students from all over the world will be able to access their studies.
Although it will be ideal to offer higher education to more students, De Villiers warns that universities must still strive for excellence. He refers to a model, which he calls the ‘three-legged pot’. Each leg represents one of the following: cost, access and excellence. If you change one of the legs, you disturb the balance. For example, if you decrease the cost of higher education, then you increase access, but you will also decrease excellence. If you increase the cost, you decrease access, but you will have great excellence because it is impossible to provide excellence in a mass mode.
It is simply not possible to offer everyone the opportunity to go to university. ‘We need to improve the employment outcomes of school-leavers, whether they pursue higher education or not. A university degree cannot be the only answer to the unemployment issues in South Africa; we need more alternatives, especially for learners who are not academically inclined.’
De Villiers says that much more funding should be devoted to TVET colleges (technical and vocational education training colleges), and community colleges rather than to a privileged university system. ‘It is true that people with degrees have a far better chance of being employed, but if more funding is invested in other avenues like vocational training colleges to provide good quality training, learners who pursue these options will have a better chance of finding employment or of starting their own businesses.’
Of course, more can be done to ensure that students who do pursue higher education, are able to finish their degrees, but De Villiers says that this mostly needs to be addressed during basic education. ‘Schools can play a bigger role in preparing learners for further studies. To complete a degree, you need commitment to study for long hours, a sense of responsibility, and the ability to grasp complex concepts, as well as a solid understanding of the language of study. There is a lack of preparedness when learners leave school. They are simply not ready to make the transition to the higher education experience, and as result, they don’t finish their degrees.’
However, despite the many challenges that the basic education system and higher education are currently facing, De Villiers is hopeful for a bright future. ‘Our undergraduates are very aware of the future and the skills that will be important in a few years’ time. We founded the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking 18 months ago and there has been a huge uptake and interest in this.
‘We are also establishing a School for Climate Studies. Here you would be able to use the expertise in various faculties and disciplines to fashion courses and modules that are offered online or face-to-face to address global warming, climate change, food security, water shortage issues, renewable energy, and fossil fuels.
‘Both these schools will play a critical role in helping to prepare our students for the future, and to tackle pressing issues like climate change, head on.
‘Universities are good at finding solutions, and although we cannot fix our current education issues alone, we can certainly contribute to finding solutions that create a system that benefits all students and offers a more hopeful future for all.’