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It's for the common good

- Bob Wekeza

There should no longer be a debate between the goals of corporate profit and higher education’s knowledge for its own sake.

South Africa, reflecting Africa, is a youthful nation with about 37% of the population under 35. And yet, more than half of them (9.1-million, according to StatsSa’s most recent information) are not in education, employment or training.

An alarming number of these are simply despondent in a futile search, with three out of four unemployed young people having been without a job for a year or longer.

In global terms, this is inordinately high and poses one of this country’s most pressing challenges. Youth unemployment is a complex issue, but one contributing factor is the mismatch between skills and workplace needs.

 South Africa has long recognised the importance of experiential learning and work-integrated learning (as far back as the 90s), but this hasn’t translated into a more acceptable employment rate. More than ever, there must be meaningful partnerships between industry, civil society and academia so that higher education research and innovation translates into new products and services to drive economic growth and address a range of social ills.

The debate is no longer split between the goals of corporate profit and higher education’s knowledge for its own sake. Business and higher education must share notions of the "common good", and find ways to achieve a better society for all.

Important insight from the Harvard Business Review reveals that in the US, business and higher education have moved closer together because of their evolving missions.

A philanthropic gesture on the part of companies in sponsoring a few postgraduate students each year is ineffective. A student with a wealth of knowledge, but few skills required to succeed in the workplace and indeed in this era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is set up to fail.

Companies and universities in Silicon Valley, for example, are interdependent and form an ecosystem supporting the advancement of technology, data science and quantum computing globally. These Silicon Valley businesses realise that without skilled and work-ready talent they’re not going to be able to crack the next code.

Meanwhile, universities are forced to be relevant in a world where jobs evolve and new ones are created, and where seemingly intractable problems like poverty and inequality need solutions, and quickly. In addition, funding shortages at tertiary education institutions require a “third stream” of income separate from the government and students. Big corporates are this third stream of much-needed capital investment.

As the HBR article says, “Both industry and academia stand to benefit from long-term cooperation. Companies will gain greater access to cutting-edge research and scientific talent at a time when corporate R&D budgets are increasingly under pressure.”

In South Africa, the Wits Reproductive and Health Institute (WRHI) reveals the power of a meaningful partnership with big corporates, civil society, policy makers and other universities across the world. The WRHI has been Africa’s leader and a prolific global player in vaccine research and development. In particular, the WRHI aims to strengthen the rollout of vaccine initiatives to poorer and harder-to-reach communities. The institute aims to build the capacity of African scientists and institutions in particular – a critical factor in ensuring that human capital remains on the continent and that research responds to context-specific issues.

A new South African start-up, Quattro-Canna Holdings, signed a memorandum of understanding with Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape in March 2021 to create a mutually-beneficial research and design partnership. The university’s anthropology, economics and natural science departments are specifically part of this agreement. Quattro-Canna Holdings aims to process hemp straw-bales (the raw material is being grown in Pondoland) to manufacture bast fibre, hurd and green microfibre for a range of South African industries, including construction.

CEO of the company, Sizwe Nkukwana, has a vision of creating a specialist hemp manufacturing “hub” in the rural town of Pondoland. Nkukwana likens this proposed hub to Singapore which is Asia’s business epicentre. Foreign investment is high, and that country is a prime investment choice. It is in Pondoland that Nkukwana hopes the companies (both local and international) involved in the hemp value chain will set up shop. Walter Sisulu would provide the necessary research insights as well as human capital and skills to local companies.

The question is: How do universities deliver value to both their students and the workplace and how do companies partner with them to do this?

The "US Companies in Africa Awards", launching on Thursday 18 November, which will be livestreamed, is a 9-month process involving recognising and celebrating US companies in Africa that have demonstrated good corporate citizenship on the continent.  

Notably, this academia-industry-public-sector partnership aims to increase awareness of the impact of American companies in Africa. This will ultimately build a body of knowledge and research insights to inform academic programmes and to tailor work-integrated learning initiatives.  

Solid partnerships between universities, companies and the government are necessities. A vibrant community of practice across industry sectors will focus and galvanise efforts to solve the pressing challenges of our time.

Dr Bob Wekeza is the Acting Director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States. This article was published in News24.