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The man tasked with tak­ing the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg (UJ) to greater heights be­lieves that money should be no bar­rier for the best stu­dents to ac­cess qual­ity higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Pro­fes­sor Tshilidzi Mar­wala, the univer­sity’s vice-chancellor designate, will take over from Pro­fes­sor Ihron Rens­burg in Jan­uary. Rens­burg has led the univer­sity since it was formed in 2005, out of Wits Tech­nikon and Rand Afrikaans Univer­sity.

Mar­wala, who has worked at UJ for nine years – ini­tially as the ex­ec­u­tive dean of the Fac­ulty of En­gi­neer­ing and the Built En­vi­ron­ment, be­fore becoming deputy vice-chancellor of re­search and in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion – also says calls to de­colonise ed­u­ca­tion are valid.

“I have al­ways un­der­stood that South African ed­u­ca­tion is too ex­pen­sive if you look at our gross do­mes­tic prod­uct per capita. So, the is­sue of ac­cess to qual­ity higher ed­u­ca­tion is im­por­tant. It is an is­sue we need to work on. It is an is­sue that, as vice-chancellor, I will be work­ing on to make sure that ed­u­ca­tion is af­ford­able and ac­ces­si­ble for those who de­serve it and can show an ap­ti­tude for suc­cess,” he told City Press this week.

“Money should not be a bar­rier for their ac­cess­ing ed­u­ca­tion be­cause it has all sorts of im­pli­ca­tions for our econ­omy. It will mean that we are not putting our best foot for­ward.”

The univer­sity will con­tinue to raise funds for poor stu­dents and those in the miss­ing mid­dle, de­fined as those with an an­nual house­hold in­come of less than R600 000, for whom the in­sti­tu­tion raised R147 mil­lion this year.

For Mar­wala, the de­coloni­sa­tion of the cur­ricu­lum means that Euro­pean ed­u­ca­tion was good and has served the coun­try well, but it was in­ad­e­quate.

“We need to bring to the fore other knowl­edge do­mains. We need to bring the African ex­pe­ri­ence into our cur­ricu­lum and knowl­edge sys­tem,” he said.

“We need to make ex­am­ples that are ac­ces­si­ble to us to ex­plain con­cepts and un­der­stand them bet­ter.”

Mar­wala was born in Duthuni vil­lage out­side Tho­hoyan­dou, in the far north of Lim­popo. His father was a teacher. He was close to his grand­mother, Vho-Tshi­a­neo, who wove mats, made clay pots and in­spired him to study en­gi­neer­ing.

His fas­ci­na­tion with the way she ded­i­cated so much time and skill to mak­ing her pots in­spired his PhD in en­gi­neer­ing, ob­tained at Cam­bridge Univer­sity in the UK. His grand­mother would test the ef­fec­tive­ness of her pots by tap­ping on the fin­ished prod­ucts to lis­ten to the sounds they made. There is a sim­i­lar test used by en­gi­neers. “That was the mo­ti­va­tion. That is how bridges and nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties are mon­i­tored – by lis­ten­ing to vi­bra­tions in­duced by hammer ... We call it an im­pulse,” said Mar­wala.

He said Rens­burg had done a lot of work for UJ, which, un­der his watch, in­creased its re­search output by 20% in 2015/16 com­pared with an av­er­age of 6% pro­duced by other uni­ver­si­ties.

Mar­wala’s lead­er­ship will be more of the same, but with some key dif­fer­ences. “It is about con­ti­nu­ity and change – con­ti­nu­ity in the sense that we have done great things and some of the work he in­tro­duced is not com­plete.”

This in­cludes adding a med­i­cal school, which is set to open in two years, and plans for a busi­ness school. Mar­wala also plans to take the univer­sity into the “fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion”.

“The world of work is chang­ing. This means that en­gi­neers will need to un­der­stand so­cial sciences and humanities, like I was trained to do in the US.”

To this end, Mar­wala plans to in­tro­duce a de­gree in com­puter sciences and cul­ture, and com­mer­cialise the univer­sity. “The univer­sity is a busi­ness. That is key. We need to take UJ to in­dus­try and bring in­dus­try to UJ. I am well poised to do that be­cause I started my ca­reer in in­dus­try.”

De­spite this, he in­sists that staff and stu­dents will be at the cen­tre of his project, and he wants UJ to have a rep­u­ta­tion for pro­duc­ing the best grad­u­ates, who are highly sought af­ter by em­ploy­ers.

“Our stu­dents are go­ing to be in the front of the queue when it comes to pref­er­ence of em­ploy­ment.”

Al­ready, he said, about 25% of black char­tered ac­count­ing grad­u­ates were be­ing trained at UJ.

“We are one of the big­gest pro­duc­ers of high-qual­ity en­gi­neers. Our law grad­u­ates are con­tin­u­ing to shine in com­mer­cial law. But we need to ori­ent a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of our grad­u­ates to have a mind-set of not hav­ing to look for jobs, but cre­at­ing jobs for oth­ers.”

Mar­wala has also vowed to work closely with stu­dent lead­ers, say­ing his stu­dent ac­tivism and past po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment have made his re­la­tions with stu­dents bet­ter.

“We are [ranked] the num­ber five univer­sity in the coun­try. We were at num­ber seven not too long ago. Soon we will be num­ber three and by the time I fin­ish as vice-chancellor, we will be num­ber one,” he said.


Tshilidzi Mar­wala VI­SION­ARY Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg’s vice-chancellor designate, Pro­fes­sor Tshilidzi Mar­wala

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