Universities SA’s World of Work Strategy Group commits to an ambitious multi-year programme of action 

Published On: 14 August 2023|

Significant stakeholder engagements in the first half of 2023 sparked numerous project considerations in Universities South Africa’s World of Work Strategy Group (WSG) if the university sector is to improve graduates’ employability in the changing and rapidly digitizing world of work.

Many of the new plans were hatched at the WSG’s inaugural meeting for 2023 that was hosted just outside the OR Tambo International Airport in April.

With the approval of the USAf Board of Directors now secured for a selection of these focus areas, the WSG has been putting processes in place to roll out the identified projects for sector-wide value creation. Projects approved at the USAf Board’s ordinary sitting in June include:

Initiatives to improve the effectiveness of Work-integrated Learning (WIL)

  • Participation in the development of a draft national WIL Policy facilitated by SAQA 

The need for a national policy on Work-integrated Learning (WIL) was identified some years ago, primarily as a mechanism to address formal subsidy for this programme and to standardise and give effect to the implementation of WIL across the variety of contexts in which it is applied in South Africa.

The USAf Board endorsed the WSG’s participation in the development of a draft national WIL Policy – a project already run by the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) through the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA) project, with funding from an Erasmus+ grant. SAQA, a member of the HERESA project, is taking the lead in this regard. The Policy draft will include a comprehensive Framework for National WIL Guidelines, which should inspire institutional policies and strategies, and curriculum uniformity.

  • Establishment of a professional body for WIL 

The WSG has bought into the idea of forming a professional “Association for Work-Integrated Learning” (AWIL) during 2023, aimed at developing professional standards; the development of curriculum; continuous professional development; professional designations and career paths for WIL practitioners in higher education institutions. The name of this organisation has already been reserved with the CIPC. The establishment of this association is one of the activities of Work-integrated Learning South Africa (WILSA), a Network of Excellence for research, training, capacity building and WIL practice in South Africa and across the continent. It is envisaged that professionalising WIL will, among other advantages, complement the employability of graduates as they tap from well-developed and trained WIL staff (that is, lecturers and coordinators responsible for placing students in WIL programmes) who will be sufficiently equipped to lead their students.

  • Identifying best WIL practices and sharing facilities across universities 

Dr Henri Jacobs, Deputy Director of Work-integrated Learning and Skills Development at the Central University of Technology, noted at the April meeting of the WSG that WIL, as a field of study, is not yet firmly established in South Africa, and that WIL qualifications available have been in a range of disciplines. Professor Colin Thakur, InSETA Research Chair: Digitalisation and Director: NEMISA KZN e-Skills Colab at the Durban University of Technology, underlined the importance of university-industry exchanges for promotion of WIL in students and immersing academics in industry while also creating opportunities for industry to come to academia.

Complementing the perspectives above, Professor Christine Winberg, the South African Research Chair in Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) based at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, shared the results of a WIL study completed at her institution. She made a case for practical knowledge – arguing for the theory-praxis nexus and showing the benefits thereof in graduate employability.

These deliberations led to a request to undertake a WIL audit across the system. The aim is to identify WIL best practices; to explore the possibility of sharing facilities between and among universities in proximal local and regional centres; and to develop a project plan in this regard.  The sharing of facilities between universities is intended to encourage optimal use of available infrastructure including equipment and related expertise for the common good. A good example is the relationship formed between the Durban University of Technology and the Central University of Technology on the use of CUT’s Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing (CRPM).

A proposal on the feasibility study referred to above will be presented to the World of Work Strategy Group in due course for approval.

Institutionalising Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education

Recognising the gains made through the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme in the past six years, the USAf Board approved the WSG’s recommendation that the entrepreneurship development work be focused on the following:

  • The institutionalisation of entrepreneurship in the sector, going beyond the current initiatives and projects. This would include looking at innovative curricula enabling graduates to create startups as part of qualification requirements;
  • Linking graduates to provincial and national entrepreneurship ecosystems to ensure sustained graduate support beyond their university years;
  • The sustainability of funding for the EDHE programme; and
  • The establishment of a monitoring and evaluation function for EDHE.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), societal changes in work and the impact of new technological trends

At their first meeting in April, members of the WSG were reminded of the mind-boggling speed of technological advancement in the 4IR era and the implications thereof, on higher education. “In Dubai, robots are already serving in high-end restaurants. They could soon serve in our courtrooms as judges, as caretakers in hospitals, and could also fight wars and take on hazardous tasks on our behalf,” said Dr Natalie Raphil (right), Founder and Chief Technology Officer at RobotsCanThink.

She said this was the most exciting time in South Africa, with Artificial Intelligence seeing no race, no distinction between rural or urban dwellers, and between degree or non-degree holders. “Opportunities now enable those who are both schooled and unschooled to access knowledge from anywhere in the world.” The question, Dr Raphil said, was whether universities were considering the changes needed to produce graduates who would be able to adapt to a changed world of work.

In some countries, robots have already taken over jobs in healthcare, food production and other industries, including in hospitality.

The WSG members heard that these considerations had pretty much informed the establishment of the Institute of the Future of Work at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). It is a facility enabling continuous engagement with industry to design curricula and generate high-impact research, responsive to industry and societal problems. The Institute hosts an annual Future of Work Dialogue that facilitates academia-industry exchanges, but also seeks to inform policy development and foster collaborations and solutions-oriented innovation. Mr Tseliso Mohlomi (left), Senior Director of this institute, was looking to extend the TUT collaboration to other universities.

From these deliberations, the WSG emerged wanting to gather data across the university system to establish what is happening within various professions, in response to 4IR imperatives. “We need to identify the sectors in our country that beg a national response on what South Africa should be doing, whether it is netiquette, online learning, aspects of energy, mining or banking,” said Professor Thandwa Mthembu, Chair of the WSG and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Durban University of Technology.

Dr Phethiwe Matutu, the USAf Chief Executive Officer, suggested investigating what was happening at the postgraduate level through an environmental scan that could identify institutions that already have training hubs in specific areas, with the aim to inform future training interventions.

“In the next two to three years we might identify major shifts that will enable us to mount a well-informed sector-wide response,” said Professor Mthembu.

Some of the WSG members who could attend the April meeting in person. From left, Professor Sibusiso Moyo (Stellenbosch University); Ms Cathy Sims, a guest speaker representing the SA Graduate Employers’ Association; Professor Roelien Brink (Tshwane University of Technology); Professor Thandwa Mthembu, Chairperson of the Group; Dr Phethiwe Matutu, USAf CEO and ex-officio member; Professor Colin Thakur (Durban University of Technology) and Mr Chief Mabizela, USAf Director: Operations and Sector Support.

Funding secured for a National Graduate Destination Study (NGDS)

The USAf Board meeting that endorsed the WSG projects also heard that USAf has secured an external funder commitment to sponsor a national graduate destination study (NGDS) for the next two years.

The overall objective of the study is to establish better understanding of the paths graduates take after leaving higher education for the labour market. The study is expected to inform higher education policy and planning, and to identify the approaches contributing most positively to graduate employment and consequent survival and performance in the labour market.

The core objectives of such a study will include: a) identifying critical education and labour market pathways; b) understanding the demographic, socio-economic, spatial or institutional characteristics associated with a successful transition to the labour market; c)examining which degrees and study programmes are well-matched to the needs of the South African labour market; and d) matching administrative records from the HEMIS to tax records from the SARS-National Treasury (NT) panel.

The study is expected to take two years from 2023 to 2025.

Revised WSG priorities for 2023

Acknowledging a notable overlap between some of the WSG’s previous priorities, the USAf Board approved, on the recommendation of the WSG, that the previous fourth and fifth priorities be combined into two, thus reducing the priority focus areas to the four shared below:

  • Work-integrated Learning (WIL) and Internships;
  • Institutionalising Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education;
  • A graduate destinations study; and
  • The fourth Industrial Revolution, societal changes in work and the impact of new technological trends.

Since the April meeting, the WSG had a follow-up meeting in May, and will go on to host another round of deliberations towards the end of 2023.

‘Mateboho Green is USAf’s Manager: Corporate Communication.