An Institution of Excellence
At the core of a functioning higher- and tertiary education sector in South Africa are academic institutions. And at the centre of these institutions are universities that consist of functional academic and administrative departments where the top leadership is made up of highly capable and passionate men and women whose common and sole intention is laying the proper groundwork for ushering in the next generation of business, government and academic leaders. The Vaal University of Technology (VUT) is situated in the southern parts of Gauteng, an institution which, daily, ensures that these parts of Gauteng produce future leaders for South Africa and Africa.
One such highly capable person at the VUT is a man who needs no introduction in South African circles, as his track record speaks for itself in a sector that he has served for nearly four decades. Professor Gordon Zide, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Governance and Organisational Transformation at the VUT, is an individual who boasts many firsts within the academic sector in South Africa. A quick chat with him reveals that he was the first black registrar at the University of Fort Hare and the first black executive director of human resources at the then University of Port Elizabeth (now the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University). The list is long, with the most recent achievement in Professor Zide’s portfolio including the work that he has done in giving strategic direction to the University, where he has, among other things, ensured synergy and convergence of ideas among the divisions in all the departments he has
headed. “I have facilitated access for success for VUT students and was active in the crafting of a transformation roadmap for VUT a few years after it made the transition from a technikon to a university of technology, which celebrates its tenth year [as a university of technology] in 2014. This is in addition to the creation and introduction of the health and safety unit at the institution,” shares Professor Zide.
A Passion for Transformation
He adds that the transformation roadmap at the university was also adopted by Higher Education South Africa (HESA), which later created the Transformation Managers’ Forum (TMF), of which Professor Zide will be the first chairperson until 2015. “Moving more into my current role, it is a huge portfolio which is involved with, but not limited to, marketing, branding, corporate communication, printing, alumni, and social justice within VUT. I am an ardent fighter for social justice because I believe that happiness should be at the core of the life of a [university] worker who spends at least 80% of their time at work. In the absence of happiness at work, one cannot expect the same to be present in other facets of their life. I intend to ensure that, under social justice, our employees are dignified, happy [people who] are treated fairly,” says Professor Zide.
Under his close watch is the Resource Mobilisation Unit which, according to Professor Zide, is not only an old department but also one whose mandate is self-explanatory. “However, I should point out that this is not about money but more about partnerships and making sure that there is investor confidence in the University. When people talk about us, they should not see VUT as a third-class institution; hence I believe partnerships testify to good relations between us and our stakeholders in business and industry.” The most important element, though, is that of human resources, which Professor Zide sees as the single-biggest responsibility. “There is no way that we can carry out our duties without the monitoring and evaluation function to ensure that the University operates at a level of systematic compliance and makes certain that there are no undue audit queries. At present, the vice chancellor (Professor Irene Moutlana) sits with a barrage of documents to sign, and that is indicative of us having inadequate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to ensure that all signatories to documents or requisitions are fully accountable for all the work done,” he notes. In this regard, VUT has a Performance Management System and a Governance Operations Division that is measuring the period 2010 to 2015 with the intention of, among others, placing VUT on a solid footing as far as setting trends for institutions locally and abroad is concerned. Governance and Organisational Transformation, headed by Professor Zide, has a new success story to share every day, every week and every month under his very capable leadership.
Conducting Research That Matters
According to Dr Bernadette Johnson, Executive Director: Research, one of the many ways in which the University is setting the trend for its peers is by conducting research that matters and makes an impact where it matters most. She enthusiastically states that, every year, more and more of VUT’s staff members are becoming interested in participating in research. This has been particularly apparent since 2013, a year in which the University achieved its most significant research output submission to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) since becoming a university. “However,” she notes, “year on year, we have shown signs of maturing and we are excited to be part of the research field and to be able to contribute even further in this regard.” She adds that she and her colleagues will remain committed to developing the Next Generation of Scholars. More and more researchers are becoming rated, which clearly demonstrates the importance of strengthening the engagements with the external environment, including the national systems of science and technology as well as international collaborators.
Dr Johnson reveals that there are three primary research units within VUT, namely the Centre for Sustainable Livelihoods, the Centre for Renewable Energy and Water, and the Centre for Alternative Energy. According to her, the Centre for Sustainable Livelihoods aims to use research as a tool to reduce poverty, household food insecurity, and malnutrition in Africa. She indicates that, in recent years, they have “focused on poverty and malnutrition as well as household food insecurity in rural, peri-urban and urban communities in the Vaal region, Qwa Qwa, the Eastern Cape, Soshanguve, Hammanskraal and various African countries. The close relationship that the Centre has with these communities has helped us a lot to create relevant research programmes with a high level of intervention programme implementation (nutrition education and awareness, food product development, household gardening, and food production school feeding and clinical trials). This has led to the reduction or mitigation of household food insecurity and the resultant malnutrition.” These initiatives, she says, have enjoyed a high level of support from the National Research Foundation (NRF) since 2000, as well as support from the South African Netherlands Partnership in Alternative Research Development. Other funding agencies include the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Nestlé, the Oilseeds Advisory Committee, the United States Potato Board and the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health.
The University’s Centre for Renewable Energy and Water (CREW) aims to be the leading global centre for renewable energy and water research and creating innovative knowledge that adds value to life in Africa, shares Dr Johnson. It also aims to develop research cultural capital, exploit the competencies at the interface of disciplines, and engage in research driven by effective teaching and learning. The focus areas in this regard include renewable energy production and the application of absorption techniques in point-of-use portable purification, as well as in waste-water remediation, storm water management and hydrology. Other focus areas are biological waste-water treatment and environmental pollution control, advanced oxidation processes, the application of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) techniques in reactor optimisation, and the application of nano-materials in pollution materials. It should be noted, she says, that these are just some of the focus areas in a long list which is daily work for her undergraduates, masters’ and postdoctoral students.
Cutting-edge Programmes to Improve Teaching and Learning
In fast-moving technological age of today, VUT has realised that teaching and learning, in contributing to the grooming of Africa’s current and future leaders has to be infused with technology. Dr Pauline Machika, Executive Director: Centre for Academic Development, is particularly passionate about the role that technology can play in improving of the quality of teaching and learning and the calibre of graduates produced by VUT. Dr Machika is the Executive Director of the Centre, of Academic Development which seeks to position the University of Technology as a student-centred institution through blended learning. Blended learning is a method of teaching -and learning– which includes face to face contact with learning with technology. Cognisant of the fact that technology is an integral part of our lives, the Centre will, according to her, be used to add value to the academic development of staff and students simultaneously.
“Part of the Centre’s vision is to see and contribute to the academic development of staff and students in alignment with the vision and mission of VUT so that we create a totally student-centred university. Some of the ways in which the centre is doing this is through a writing laboratory where students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, receive writing support in order that they can improve their writing skills. This lab is open during library hours from Monday to Saturday and, although the Centre is only three years old, we are hoping to move towards the creation of a digitalised writing lab,” says Dr Machika.
Within the Centre for Academic Development is also housed the Maths Centre where the focus is on improving mathematics skills in partnership with the Mathematics department, which, she admits, is a difficult area to traverse. “We have employed a maths coordinator who offers support and, as premature as it may be to say this, we have already started seeing a positive and dramatic turnaround for the better in the maths pass rate,” she reveals. It is thus important to highlight that the Centre has introduced an evaluation method for lecturers where real-time evaluation can be done by peers and students and where, through the use of digital technology, reports can be generated about teaching and learning and the quality thereof. Adds Dr Machika: “All this learning is done in tandem with our staff-development programmes on assessment and how to improve teaching and learning. We have workshops every term and, in 2015, we wish to enlist the input of external trainers both in and outside South Africa. In addition to striving to have the best teachers, we want to infuse our staff development with a local and an international flavour.
“All our efforts in this regard are aimed at placing VUT at the apex so that we can have cutting-edge programmes to improve teaching and learning. The University will launch learning communities in residences in 2015. In addition, through the launch of a new Learner Management System, we aim to reach 8 000 learners in the next three years and expose them to learning with technology. We hope that this will do a lot to help us in improving teaching and learning while, at the same time, enhancing our excellence in so far as standards in teaching and learning are concerned. As such, we hope that in the three years we will be able to share practices with the University as a whole as well as other universities of technology both nationally and internationally,” she explains. In conclusion, Dr Machika says that VUT’s focus is on the development of technologists for the country. “These are individuals who are able to transform theory in practice.” These technologists, she maintains, will make a meaningful contribution as citizens to the economy of South Africa. VUT strives to make a meaningful contribution to the eradication of poverty through its teaching and learning. Dr Machika hopes this will, in a few years’ time, be the legacy of VUT, to the southern Gauteng area, South Africa and the continent as a whole.
STATE YOUR CASE | Vaal University of Technology
by Andrew Ngozo