A South African challenge embraced
‘There is diversity in terms of race, money, gender and religion. We try to address this diversity so that students and staff members can live together in harmony’
Not everyone likes change. But NorthWest University (NWU) has embraced it – and there’s been a change of heart, mind and body.
But to get to this point meant changing its statute and its strategy. The university had to transform and position itself into a unitary institution of superior academic excellence, focused on and committed to social justice.
NWU is unique. It has a footprint in two provinces – North West and Gauteng – with rural, semi-rural and urban campuses, a diverse staff and student body, and a unique approach to language.
Vice-chancellor Professor Dan Kgwadi, who took up his post in 2014, has played a major part in changing the university’s strategy and, particularly, in implementing the changes.
The university was formed in 2004 as part of the government’s plan to transform higher education. In NWU’s case this saw the merger of a historically white university, Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, with a historically black university, the former University of NorthWest. This coming together to form NWU was a strong symbolic act of reconciliation and nation building.
However, the model of the university was federal. Each of the three campuses – in Potchefstroom, Mahikeng and the Vaal Triangle – worked in a semi-autonomous way and they were virtually independent of one another, setting separate exams, using different textbooks and study guides.
What needed to happen was for the university to change direction and become a unitary institution. The strategy 2015 to 2025 was the start of that process. And it has been a major shift, involving transformation and restructuring. For example, when the campuses were semi-autonomous there were 15 deans. Now there are eight. The executive deans are no longer deans of Potchefstroom, Mahikeng or the Vaal, but of NWU.
Instead of having two business schools – at Potchefstroom and Mahikeng – offering two different MBAs, there is now only one NWU MBA, wherever you study. This applies to degrees in all eight faculties.
Kgwadi was brought in to accelerate and begin implementing the changes. Instead of having three campuses, each with its own faculties, under the new dispensation, the three campuses now have the same faculties, textbooks and modules. Students now write the same exams for a module across all campuses, ensuring the quality is the same. The campuses, instead of being independent entities, have become simply different sites of delivery for the same quality of learning excellence.
As Kgwadi, who is passionate and excited about the new-look NWU, put it: “We are now able to say the product of the NWU is the same throughout.”
Using computer terms, he says the “hardware” was putting together the strategy, transforming and restructuring, while the “software” was aligning the programme to ensure the same module at all three campuses would be the same.
Kgwadi says part of the university’s transformation was appointing a diverse team of deans: “Diverse in terms of gender, race and age. For continuity there’s a very good spread between deans and deputy deans, which will ensure the university remains sustainable.”
Highlights of the past year included “populating the strategy by getting the programmes to align academically”.
“We had to ensure there was social cohesion and equity. It’s a South African challenge – universities are a microcosm of society. The university has a responsibility to take corrective action. Its programmes must address societal challenges,” Kgwadi says. “Our focus on social cohesion is a means of addressing that. Our programmes encourage integration.
“Our students come from diverse social and economic backgrounds. They also come from different language backgrounds. The four major language groups are English, Afrikaans, Setswana and Sesotho.
“But social cohesion does not stop there. There is diversity in terms of race, money, gender and religion. We try to address this diversity so that students and staff members can live together in harmony.”
One of the highlights this year was getting the new language policy approved by the university council. “It’s an inclusive policy so that a student from any language background must not feel excluded in or outside the classroom. We have multimodes of presentation. If a lecture is given in one language, there’s a translation into other languages. Headsets provide simultaneous translations and if classes are very big we can run parallel lectures.”
Kgwadi says: “When dealing with language we have to depoliticise the issue by ensuring we are as inclusive as possible. No language has preference or assumes a privilege for one particular group.”
At present exams are set predominantly in English and Afrikaans, but there are already plans in place to include Setswana and Sesotho.
Another highlight was that NWU’s commitment to excellence in teaching and learning was recognised in international rating results. Higher education networking company Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) awarded NWU an overall four-star rating.
“This four-star rating confirms the university’s progress in realising its dream of becoming an internationally recognised learning institution in Africa.”
NWU scored five stars in the teaching, employability, innovation and facilities categories. It was also ranked among the top 5% of universities globally in the QS system.
This year the university formulated a declaration on the decolonisation of the curriculum, ensuring faculties align their teaching plans, research and community engagement. It states that NWU seeks to be a socially responsive and relevant institution that understands its obligations to accelerate transformation and create an inclusive and rigorous academic culture.
“We are also one of the founding members of the BRICS Network University. Our research entities are aligned, we are involved in joint ventures, signing 20 memorandums of understanding in the past year. This adds to our international focus, ensuring we aren’t left behind particularly, but not exclusively, with the Brics countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa].”
Kgwadi says the university was relatively stable during the #FeesMustFall issues. This year 14 800 students were granted bursaries by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, compared with the 6 200 of 2016.
With 72 000 students, both contact and distance, NWU is the second-largest university after Unisa.
With the fourth industrial revolution looming, NWU realises the importance of keeping programmes relevant and knows curriculums will need to be constantly transformed.
NWU believes purple is the colour of success. As part of its rebranding and transformation, all campuses now sport the colour purple. Kgwadi grins as he points to his purple tie.
We had to ensure there was social cohesion and equity. It’s a South African challenge – universities are a microcosm of society. The university has a responsibility to take corrective action. Its programmes must address societal challenges
MAIN MAN Vice-chancellor of North-West University says the main focus is academic excellence, a big part of which is embracing issues of social justice