South African universities remain in deep crisis, with violent protests against – among other things – fee increases leading to shutdowns at many famous institutions.
There could, however, be a homemade solution to the problem. Over the same time period that South Africa’s university crisis has been escalating, the country’s e-learning space has been developing rapidly.
Companies such as Obami, Rethink Education, Rekindle Learning and my own The Student Hub are attempting to redefine how education is provided and increase access to learning. In fact, according to UNESCO, South Africa is at the forefront of an African e-learning market that doubled in size between 2011 and 2016.
Yet this is not a movement that is unusual to South Africa. Ed-tech has powerful backers elsewhere. Dr Christine Ortiz recently left her role as dean for graduate education at MIT to set up a research university that will have no majors, no lectures, and no classrooms, placing tech at the heart of education.
Ortiz’s view is that the higher education system in many countries across the world is still stuck in the Middle Ages. While I would not perhaps go that far, it is demonstrably clear that universities in South Africa and elsewhere have not kept up with technological advances, and are missing opportunities to improve access to higher education – and the effect of that education – by technological means.
This is painfully evident in South Africa. The university crisis goes beyond the debate over student fees. It is also a sign that the system in general has failed, with poor performance, low productivity, and irrelevant curricula that do not address skills gaps common across the board. These issues have a direct impact on the economy as well as the social well-being of the nation.
The universities and the government have missed the fact that these issues have been brewing for a quite a while. Some of us in the private sector have not. Talking to students from previously disadvantaged communities over the past few years, we could hear their anger against the system.
To counteract these problems, increase access to higher education and ensure those that undergo it are qualified for the jobs that need filling, the old-fashioned way of learning needs to be updated for the current tech-savvy generation.
The utilisation of technology in the provision of education serves two major purposes. It would allow universities to deliver more targeted, easily updated education in a manner that modern students are more comfortable with. And, crucially, by automating processes it would help to bring down operating costs and help make university more affordable to underprivileged sectors of society.
Yet for companies that provide these vital technological solutions, it is not simply a question of building and waiting for the universities to come. Collaboration is vital. Tech companies can facilitate the provision, processing and delivery of information and data in ways students relate to. The universities need to understand that, and work with us to make the system better.
The institutions that understand that the quickest will put themselves at a great advantage as the inevitable shift to more technological ways of learning gathers pace. Those that do not adjust face extinction, as the quality of their education will be lower than elsewhere, and the cost higher.
Dr Ortiz believes the current global university system is in the Middle Ages, but there is no reason at all – especially in South Africa – why it should not catch up with the real world quickly. Some elements of the current system remain valuable, and nobody here is espousing a university system that abolishes lecturers and classes.
However, it is clear the current system is not adaptive to the evolving needs of students. Tech companies have understood this. The key to solving South Africa’s universities crisis will be how quickly the institutions realise that the help they need to make education better and cheaper is right here on their doorstep.
by Hertzy Kabeya, managing director of The Student Hub