STATE YOUR CASE | Vaal University of Technology
by Andrew Ngozo
A World to a Better Future
The year 2015 can, for many reasons, be regarded as a watershed year for the Vaal University of Technology (VUT). For one, the University celebrates 50 years in existence; and, for another, it enters its second decade as a university of technology. Universities of technology are a fairly new phenomenon in the South African tertiary-education space. Judging by VUT’s accomplishments in years gone by, it has done well among its peers. Not only has the VUT grown into a reputable international institution, but it also continues to be an employer of choice in an era in which many academics are choosing to move from one institution to the next in a very short time.
Having been at the VUT in various capacities since the dawn of democracy, Annie Moletsane, director: Department of Cooperative Education, says her primary mandate is the placement of work-integrated learning (WIL) students from the University in industry. One may think that this is an easy task, but not when one considers Moletsane’s journey within the Department and the institution. “The placement of students is very close to my heart because it is a mechanism that assists students and other stakeholders to profit from a mutually beneficial relationship,” she says. She explains her mandate thus: “Cooperative education is a mixture of marketing and business management, since one has to be both a good marketer and a seller while realising that the core mandate is to make a clear distinction between running a business in a profit-making company and running a business in an institution of higher learning.”
It is not surprising that, in 2013, she created a record number of placement opportunities for more than 3 000 WIL students. How did she do it? “The key was to strategise and set clear goals for the Department. It was not easy, because some of the industry data we had at our disposal was out of date. However, I concentrated on active partners and contacted them, which, at times, meant making personal telephone calls to the who’s who of industry – often requesting them to increase the number of our students per semester. Because of the personal touch, we were able to succeed,” she stresses. However, because WIL often requires considerable resources on the part of organisations and the University, she also had to approach the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) to fund these additional students.
Moletsane is determined to improve on her successes by continuing with the traditional mode of operation of crea-ting and sustaining an inviting atmosphere in which people can identify opportunities to realise their full potential within WIL. “Because we are living in uncertain economic times, companies are often reluctant to take on students because of the increased salary bill. However, far from the University ‘dumping’ students on companies, we are grooming the next generation of leaders and, as tough as it is, they should make space for us,” she explains.
Growing VUT’s Global Profile
The mission of the International Relations and Advancement Department at the VUT is to promote and facilitate all facets of internationalisation as well as the development of the University in all spheres. It is a port of call for all international students and visitors and provides a wide range of services, including responding to general enquiries from prospective students or their parents, helping current students with extensions of study permits, and providing general advice during their stay at the VUT. The Department’s contribution to the progress of the University includes: growing the VUT’s global profile through staff and student exchange; benchmarking continental needs and global standards; enhancing integration of the global and local for mutual benefit; providing specialist services for all international students and applicants; and developing and promoting the concept of internationalisation.
The world is fast becoming a global village and young people often wish to further their education in countries other than their own. Being a reputable member of the higher education and training sector, the VUT boasts a fair share of international students from the African continent and beyond. According to Wiseman Jack, director of International Relations and Advancement at the VUT, the welfare of such students rests with him and his team. “The International Relations and Advancement Department facilitates immigration clearance and the welfare of international students and monitors the mobility of incoming and outgoing students. We are currently busy with the integration of at least 2 000 students from 35 countries,” he reveals. For international students studying at the VUT, the Department endeavours to make sure that they feel at home while studying in South Africa. For example, the University hosts an annual French Day which focuses on francophone students on campus. He adds that there is quite a sizeable contingent of students from the francophone regions of Africa.
It is also the Department’s mandate to identify and utilise funding opportunities available from international partners. The University’s partners include such countries as France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA), the Netherlands, Ukraine, Germany and Finland. Such partnerships are very important because, for the most part, these countries are very keen to make use of the VUT’s Southern Gauteng Science and Technology Park, which is popularly known as the Science Park. “The Science Park is the future of South Africa and Africa in education research. It is interesting to note that ours is the only science park of its kind in South Africa. Thus we are well positioned to hold our own in this sphere of the global space,” proclaims Jack.
Global Expertise Made Locally Relevant
Recently appointed as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Academic and Research, at the VUT, Professor Kuzvinetsa Peter Dzvimbo has had a successful track record in higher education and training. As one who has been in the sector for a good part of his career, his passion for teaching and learning is clearly apparent in all that he says. According to Professor Dzvimbo, his aim at the VUT “is to increase the number of researchers and accentuate the ‘graduateness’ of its learners”. He then proceeds to explains what this means: “When students enter the gates of the University, they come to gain knowledge; but they have to leave with more than that – they have to leave with what I refer to as knowledge competencies in order that they can be experts in their fields of study. Inside the campus, it means that those who teach have to do so by properly factoring in the new technologies of the world of today.” Moreover, he elaborates, the aim is to continuously find ways of improving methods of teaching such that students will be able to learn anywhere, anytime and on any device. The University is steadily moving towards achieving this goal in an era in which information and communications technology (ICT) is rapidly evolving. “The 10 years as a university of technology place us ‘ahead of the pack’ in South Africa and on the continent. These years are our greatest strength,” he notes.
As an academic who has traversed the length and breadth of the world, Professor Dzvimbo envisions a VUT that develops centres of excellence to create what he refers to as an ‘educity’. These will be teaching and learning centres that involve cutting-edge technology as well as cheaper and more robust ways of teaching and learning. “We have seen the e-learning concept taking off in Africa and we want to take it a step further to blended learning, which is face-to-face interaction complemented by online learning. With disruptive technologies in learning and teaching, we will increase the research productivity of our institution,” he states confidently.
Prior to joining the VUT, Professor Dzvimbo was the Executive Dean in the College of Education at the University of South Africa (Unisa), the largest university on the African continent with over 300 000 students. Before that, he was Deputy Executive Dean in the College of Human Sciences at the same institution. He was also a Professor of Education Management and Head of the Department of Education Management at the University of Johannesburg. He also served as rector of the African Virtual University in Nairobi, Kenya, from 2003 to 2007 and was a Senior Education Specialist in higher education at the World Bank. Furthermore, he was the founding Vice-Chancellor of the Zimbabwe Open University in Harare, Zimbabwe. Prior to that appointment, he was a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Zimbabwe and dean of the Faculty of Education at the same institution. He has worked in a number of African countries in the field of e-learning and teacher education and has been a consultant for various organisations within the United Nations, such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He has also served at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in South Africa.
The Unit for Preparatory Programmes
In 2002, when she realised that first-year students were struggling to fit into the university environment, Dr Trudy Sutherland, Manager: Unit for Preparatory Programmes at the VUT, decided to act with the primary intention to equalise students’ accessibility to academic success. The mode of operation in this regard was for Dr Sutherland and her new team to introduce independent, short-course-format intervention programmes for first-year students. She explains: “The independent, short-course-format intervention programmes offered, identify academically talented, but underprepared, post-secondary domestic and foreign students from educationally disadvantaged communities so that they come to value intellectual diversity, can function in a multicultural environment, and can develop the skills and resources required to obtain a tertiary qualification necessary to pursue a specific career.”
According to her, all intervention programmes are offered over a one-year period, with intermediary programmes being studied over five modules. “Two modules are offered from January to June, while the remaining three modules are offered from July to December.” When passion for a profession comes from the top, it naturally permeates to all structures or members of the team. In breaking down the unit’s staff composition, Dr Sutherland shares that there are intermediary and foundational lecturers as well as an invigilation team and administrative staff. Some of these are contract personnel. The unit’s success is clearly evident in the 66% pass rate among 1 585 students in 2013.
The VUT’s promise to all its students is that it is ‘your world to a better future’. Some may consider this just another tagline, but they would be wrong. What it does mean is a world filled with possibilities for the University’s students who, with the best subject matter experts and leaders as their coaches, are assured of the best higher education in their respective fields. South Africa, Africa and the world can thus rest assured that a brighter tomorrow beckons.