Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Vice-Chancellor of UNISA
Modern smart technology is already a part of all our lives, and will become more integrated and widespread in the near future. Does South Africa have the infrastructure and capacity to accommodate these changes? Not sufficiently, says Professor Puleng LenkaBula, Vice Chancellor of UNISA – but there are steps we can take now to ease the transition and keep us competitive.
‘Firstly, we need energy to make technology work. Currently we’re dependent on large commercial entities like Eskom, which have proven to be costly and unreliable.
‘Secondly, we are still too dependent on countries like China and America, which own the intellectual property, systems, processes and devices that give us workable technology. They own the licenses of these technologies, which puts us on the backfoot, especially if one takes into consideration the value of the rand against the dollar.
‘Unless we start utilising our own creativity and inventiveness, we going to have a hard time adjusting to a changing world.’
Prof. LenkaBula would like to see South Africans coming up with more of our own inventions – for example, systems that can function offline.
‘During the hard lockdown, learners in rural areas were often unable to keep up with their studies because of limitations like electricity and data challenges. If we could have given them access to devices that function offline, imagine the difference that could have made!’
She also points to other areas like alternative energy resources that can help us function more effectively. UNISA’s College of Science and Technology is working on exactly this issue.
‘We are looking at ways to commercialise biogas. Should we succeed, it will mean we don’t have to wait for Eskom or other large commercial entities to make energy available to rural areas where these services are often unavailable.’
Of course, enhancing our country’s creativity and inventiveness to the point where it makes an appreciable difference to our economy means massifying education.
‘Education, especially in STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Art subjects to incorporate creativity and to integrate all subjects with each other), is what’s going to make these inventions possible. We need to ensure that more people participate in the learning arena and that more research outputs are available. The only way to do so is if we radically massify undergraduate studies and enhance research in post-graduate courses.’
Prof. LenkaBula believes that Unisa is playing an important role in taking our country forward, especially in the area of digital learning. UNISA has always been an open, distance education institute, and began thinking around e-learning modalities in the early 2000s.
‘When Covid-19 hit we had a competitive edge; that’s why we completed the academic year on time and also offered online examinations. Our digital pedagogies were in place.
‘The missed opportunity was that instead of UNISA helping the country to quickly adopt to an online learning environment, we were all on retreat in terms of public engagements. Universities like the University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria were in the public domain during the first moments of the lockdown, with their methods often taken as definitive of open distance e-learning (ODeL). Yet UNISA’s use of ODeL has a long history, with the methodology already well developed. I think that was UNISA’s missed opportunity, and one of the key areas in which we will need to improve. We really need to project our areas of success in open distance e-learning, and to show other institutions how we have framed our multi-model learning systems over time.’
Prof. LenkaBula foresees many other exciting areas of development during her time of leadership at UNISA.
‘We have to read the signs of the times to stay relevant. As a result, we are broadening our areas of learning and research. We have identified ten niche areas that will make us stand out from other universities.’
Aviation, aeronautics and logistics is a key area they plan to develop. ‘We are in the aerotropolis. Pretoria is surrounded by five airports and it doesn’t make sense that UNISA is not offering further studies in these areas.’
Another area will be gender-based violence, feminism, and ‘womanism’.
‘The majority of people who study at UNISA are women, so it makes sense to cater to women and other marginalised groups like LGBTQIA+ persons, international students, and students living with disabilities. If we do this, we will create an inclusive model of education that enables more participation. We want to become partners in undoing patriarchally oppressive systems that sometimes derail women from succeeding in their careers or in sharing their competencies, talents and aspirations – to break the glass ceilings that keep women from reaching their potential.’
Unisa is also looking to develop a study field in marine studies. ‘We have two oceans and it’s important to offer studies in the relevancy of fisheries, logistics and global trade.’
Other exciting areas they’re planning include microfinances, alternative energy systems, understanding 4IR and ‘post-humanities’, ecological studies and health system studies, which will include auxiliary studies and the practice of medicine.
Prof. LenkaBula says that UNISA has not slept on the statutory obligations of the internationalisation of South Africa’s higher education system, which is why they are broadening their fields of study.
‘We see ourselves as the science ambassador for our country, and therefore must activate agility in this regard. We want to position ourselves in the national innovation system and not just in publications. If we succeed, I believe South Africa will reap huge benefits in the years to come.’