As school leavers and first-time university applicants begin a higher education journey like no other, quality of education, full-time employment opportunities and the future of work are significant, top-of-mind factors that are informing their decisions.
Over and above the shrinking job market, automation and redundancy, and ever-increasing unemployment among South African youth, we also know that flexibility, sustainability and equality are equally important for younger generations. So, what role should universities play in preparing students for a working world that is constantly changing?
Universities are adapting to meet the desires of students as well as the requirements of businesses. The traditional structures, courses and programmes of universities are changing, not only due to the disruptions and restrictions caused by the pandemic, but also to respond to the demands of the future of the working world.
A student enrolling for a BSc can expect to learn physics, chemistry, mathematics and other facets of pure science, but according to Dr Phumeza Kota-Nyati, Dean of Learning and Teaching at the Nelson Mandela University, this is going to change: ‘The world is requiring well-rounded citizens who can contribute to economies and offer visionary thinking to new world problems. Many programmes and courses are going to be obsolete in the near future, and as much as 85% of the careers that today’s students will follow in 2030, don’t even exist yet. If we don’t respond to the needs of students now, we will be failing them.’
A shift to multidisciplinary programmes
Against this background, there is a paradigm shift in academics pertaining to multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary ways of producing graduates relevant for the twenty-first century. Universities and their faculties are being re-imagined to revitalise their transformative potential and become vibrant, dynamic spaces of higher learning.
Nelson Mandela University has been integral in this higher education evolution. Pre-COVID-19, the university developed South Africa’s first dedicated Ocean Sciences Campus, providing state-of-art teaching, training, research and innovation support to boost the emerging ocean economy. The recently launched Medical School offers cutting-edge, context-specific medical training, research and innovation to improve the quality of healthcare services in our public hospitals and clinics, and quality of health within our communities.
Right now, recalibrations are taking place among an array of disciplines. The humanities faculty is being revitalised and integrated into all the disciplines of the institution, while associated disciplines like engineering, finance and IT are being merged to offer students a rich, multifaceted experience. The presence of this crossover extends to our combination programmes too,’ says Dr Kota-Nyati. ‘To be relevant in the financial space of the future, an accounting student will need to understand the logic behind how an automated financial transaction is processed and also feed that logic into automated systems. Therefore, they would need to have a deeper understanding of a blend of fields like accounting, economics, IT and engineering,’’ says Dr Kota-Nyati.
It can be discouraging for a young person to pursue higher education with the expectation that few employment opportunities exist, even with a university qualification. In a country with an unemployment rate of 46.3% among young people aged between 15 and 34 years, students should be encouraged to explore entrepreneurship and nurtured to be excel in the field.
At Nelson Mandela University, alumni are providing a mentorship by presenting entrepreneurial webinars, to demonstrate how knowledge and training gained from a university qualification can be leveraged to start a sustainable business.
‘Having a university qualification goes beyond just landing a job,” says Dr Kota-Nyati. “It cultivates personal growth, imparts valued skills, empowers people to think for themselves and opens up entrepreneurial opportunities.’
‘We have heavily invested in entrepreneurial programmes to provide students with real-life experiences of running a business and this, together with our webinars, is delivering on preparing students to launch businesses of their own,’ says Dr Kota-Nyati.
Support beyond the lecture hall
The university experience of 2022’s first-years is going to be very different in a traditional sense. Many Grade 11s and matrics have had to adjust to a hybrid learning approach, so universities are taking steps to ensure that any gaps (academically speaking) created by disruptions in learning caused by the pandemic can be bridged. ‘At Nelson Mandela University, we want to reassure students that we are sensitive to the realities of COVID-19,’ says Dr Kota-Nyati. ‘In our preparations to receive the new cohort of first-year students, we are hosting boot camps in maths, science and languages, as well as other counselling programmes, as part of the first-year orientation programme. This will allow us to address in gaps in learning and step in to take a student to the next level,’’ she says.
The difficult economic conditions and high cost of pursuing higher education can be barriers for prospective students in accessing quality, higher education. Students who qualify for any course offered by Nelson Mandela University are encouraged to reach out to the university’s student support services and to apply for funding from the National Students’ Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).