The past 10 years in higher education show above all the power of a wrong idea and the harmful consequences of no one wanting to identify and take hard choices.

We have never had 21 ‘universities’. We should all be ashamed that we ever pretended otherwise.

If we want to be globally competitive we have to talk about excellence. South Africa is not a large, wealthy nation how many centres of excellence can we realistically aim to have? It is one thing to say South Africa will be globally competitive, it is another to assemble the human and technological skills that will make us competitive.

There are enormous problems in higher education, the few pockets of global excellence are under threat, the feeder system from our schools is not delivering the quantity or quality of students required, South Africa is slipping against its competitors and the country is about to embark on an ambitious round of change and intervention, the outcomes of which are uncertain.

The reappraisal now taking place is long overdue. It is imperative that a new approach should not fail.

The Council on Higher Education’s report on the shape and size of higher education presents business with an opportunity and a threat. It recommends that the minister should begin a process of consultation with interested parties and argues that funds including private sector funding will have to be mobilised for strategic interventions in the system.

Business has a real interest in the future of higher education. The key question is what role business can play in this area of national policy. How can we best use limited resources to get value for money and organise the system as a whole to meet national goals?

There is no effective communication between business, higher education and government, no meeting ground where business and higher education can begin to influence and affect one another in constructive ways. Business has failed to lodge itself as an effective role player in the eyes of both the universities and government.

In the face of global competition and the opportunities offered by new technologies, business everywhere is being forced to rethink strategies, operating structures and relations with higher education. But most South African business people seem unaware that business could play an active role in response to the crisis in higher education or in influencing education to meet the
challenges of globalisation.

We can learn from international experience. In the 1980s it was clear to analysts that the knowledge economy and therefore the output of higher education would be crucial to the United Kingdom’s economic future. Most of the captains of industry did not understand that.

A few did, however, and they got a remarkable enterprise going: the Council for Industry and Higher Education. The council is founded on the belief that the future of the United Kingdom depends on the development and application of knowledge and that a partnership between business and higher education can deliver positive results.

South African business, despite an overloaded agenda, must think through its collective needs and address its own interests in influencing the future of higher education. The interests of business coincide with the national interest in this crucial policy area.

Business should urgently initiate a collective process to study the ‘shape and size’ report, develop a considered view and engage with government and higher education institutions to exercise greater influence on universities.

Business should use donations to universities much more strategically. It should increase its collaboration with universities, science councils and other such bodies in carrying out research programmes, actively co-operating with universities in the commercialisation of research results as a key element in South Africa’s strategy for economic development.

Business should take the initiative to establish a high-level business-higher education forum for the exchange and development of views as a continuing base for influencing public policy and institutional change.

South Africa’s lifeline for the protection of our relative position in the emerging markets of the world depends increasingly on high-level skills and technological innovation.


National skills crisis

Business must take the national skills crisis seriously. This requires an intense focus on the higher education system. Business must begin to co-ordinate its efforts and act collectively through a business-higher education forum, backed by expertise.

Business, as competitive, fragmented, and individualistic as it is, needs to develop political will as much as government does. Vision and leadership is needed to bring together an inherently disorganised set of players and interests.

Business now has an unprecedented opportunity to influence the future of higher education. The methods of doing so and the variety of specific roles business can play are clear. Many corporations, universities and governments around the world are simply getting on with tasks which business and universities in this country regard as novel, even revolutionary.

Government will need vision, courage, and management skills in reshaping higher education. It needs business as a strategic partner in the difficult task of rethinking the higher education system to one far better suited to a middle-income developing country.

The stakes are high. Strategic business participation in this debate could make all the difference between success and failure. Leadership is urgently required.

Ann Bernstein is the executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise.

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