Universities need strong and appropriately funded digital strategies to sustain, long term

Published On: 18 October 2021|

CoViD-19 has forever reshaped the higher education landscape, accelerating changes that have been taking place over the last decade. For universities to remain competitive and financially viable in an era of hastened technological change, having a strong, comprehensive digital transformation strategy is more imperative than ever.

This was the message from Professor Zeblon Vilakazi (left), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, and Mr Creswell du Preez, who serves as advisor to Higher Education IT South Africa (HEITSA). Both were contributing to the discussion on Financing Technology Infrastructure in Higher Education, a sub-theme of Funding Infrastructure Development which was a subject of discussion in the second breakaway session of Universities South Africa’s Funding Strategy Group at the recent higher education conference. This was all part of the 2nd Universities South Africa (USAf) Higher Education Conference that was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from 6 to 8 October.

Said Professor Vilakazi: “The response to the global pandemic has led to the increased use of new digital technologies across all sectors and there is a growing need to invest in digital infrastructure with things such as augmented reality (AR) and digital laboratories. However, the fact is that the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) earmarked R2.3 billion in 2021 for infrastructure development but this was reduced by R1.3 billion. So we need new models for funding and new partnerships.”

Most of Africa, he stated, still needed to catch up and “leapfrog” into the new infrastructural realm: “Technology and infrastructure development in education is mission critical. We need to invest in this just as much as we did in the past in physical infrastructure assets such as buildings. Despite all the challenges that faced us last year with the start of the pandemic, I am pleased to say that we were able to rescue the academic year.”

Mr Creswell Du Preez started off by paying tribute to the information technology (IT) teams at South African universities: “All thanks to them because the job they have done in very trying circumstances has been phenomenal.”

He continued: “As the pandemic hit, universities who had not moved critical services to cloud or hosted platforms were slower to deploy on scale and were forced to fast-track their cloud adoption strategies. Also vital was the provision of mobile computing devices to both staff and students as well as the provision of connectivity to these digital resources.”

Du Preez (left) spoke about the myriad platforms a university has to have in its digital toolbox in order to deliver optimal solutions for staff and students. These include service delivery platforms, digital optimisation platforms, collaboration platforms, security technology and cybersecurity solutions, modernised university paces, efficient building management, improved business continuity and network connectivity.

As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, Du Preez says that universities will look to adopt a hybrid academic programme.

“A question that now also needs to be addressed is how we evaluate the students’ progress – we need to plan for technologies that capture their journey from the moment they’ve enrolled until they graduate. There is going to be funding required for these sorts of elements. Now that we know that we can work from anywhere, there is going to be even more reliance on systems and services and the capability of the cloud platforms and artificial intelligence (AI).”

This caught the imagination of Professor Vilakazi who spoke about the various technologies promoted under digital transformation such as artificial intelligence and robotics, quantum and new computing technologies and visual and augmented realities.

“The last one really excites me. It will be a reset for anatomists. They will be able to learn about species and perform dissections in a virtual reality setting. That doesn’t mean they will never have to practise on the real thing but it will save the lives of some of these animals involved in these experiments!” the professor said.

Du Preez believes that universities are now at the stage where technology is becoming unforgiving when manual processes are involved: “So it’s time to start moving those into hyper automation. Universities also have to re-evaluate their Capex (capital expense) versus Opex (operational expense) model when it comes to provisioning information technology. It becomes paramount to ask the question of how quickly we realise value from our technology investments and what universities actually need and when,” he emphasised.

“With the Capex model it could take from six to eight months from procurement to delivery to being up-and-running. Turnkey cloud based solutions in an Opex model are preferred as it takes a week to eight weeks to implement. This creates improved service delivery as the IT personnel are freed from ‘watching hardware’ to providing in-time solutions.”

Du Preez concluded: “We also need to underpin our technology acquisition with some principles. It is useless if we’ve invested in solutions and our staff and students are not trained. Universities really need to focus on digital competence programmes and have a clear strategy. This applies to all its staff and not only those involved in academia. IT teams also have to remain relevant and up-to-date with the latest technology.”

Professor Vilakazi reiterated that these new technologies and their implementation will require universities to work in partnerships with a number of organisations: “A triple helix of government, university and industry is central in ensuring that we are able to realise our infrastructural needs in various forms.”

He gave an example of how during the CoViD-19 lockdowns, the university worked with big business and came to an agreement on how to provide devices and zero rate data for the students who couldn’t afford them and lived in far flung areas, so that they could continue with their studies.

Professor Vilakazi said that another collaboration between Wits, IBM Research Africa and the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) helped Gauteng to address the increasing number of CoViD-19 infections. It collated anonymous data from multiple sources to help officials create policy based on data-driven decisions and to identify hotspots.

This was not the only Wits partnership with IBM.

Quantum computing is the future

“In 2019 Wits University became the first African partner on the IBM Q Network to become the gateway for academics across South Africa and to the 15 universities who are part of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). Quantum computing promises to be able to solve certain problems – such as chemical simulations and types of optimisation – that will be beyond the practical reach of classical machines. This partnership drives innovation in frontier-technologies and benefits African-based researchers, academics and students who now have access to decades of quantum computing capabilities at the click of a button,” he said.

“For Africa to remain competitive for the coming decades we must get the next generation of students quantum-ready. The continent couldn’t afford to be left behind and the solution, in terms of cost, was to partner with many universities in South Africa.

“The new economy will be built on some of these technologies; we are right at the beginning of the process but moving forward. Again I must emphasise that this is mission critical for African universities and any delays will have consequences. Up until 1990, South Africa was able to develop vaccines – we were able to eradicate polio. However, we were on the backfoot when it came to CoViD-19 and had to beg the international market to sell vaccines to this country. There will be other pandemics coming and we need to have the capacity to do research and development in these areas. We cannot leave this to be done by the global north. We need to collaborate across the sector and include all universities in South Africa,” concluded Professor Vilakazi.

Financing Technology infrastructure in higher education was a second sub-theme of USAf’s Funding Strategy Group at the recent conference. The FSG also got the conference talking and debating on Sustainable University Funding in an Unequal Society and also on University Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges – all very pertinent as public universities explore strategies to sustain, long-term, while transforming and responding optimally to their contexts.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.