Higher Education and Business: Joining together for a better future
“There are three primary challenges facing South Africa – and business is at the heart of these. Firstly, we have to reconstruct our domestic and socio-economic development. Secondly, we have to advance science and the provision of knowledge-based solutions to society. And finally, we must respond to future challenges while delivering economic development. And to address these challenges, we must deliver new knowledge – a task for institutions of higher education.”
Those were the words of Brian Williams, recently elected Chairperson of Council and President of Convocation at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), delivering an address on Academic Institutions and Economic Development to the leadership of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Wednesday 2 July 2014.
The event was part of an ongoing initiative by the Cape Chamber to bring business and academia closer in order to address social and economic challenges in the region and country - part of its mandate to serve, enable and lead business.
As a businessman himself – Williams has been an electrician, a trade unionist, an academic and researcher, and runs Brian Williams Consultancy – he believes that innovation must lead to and flow from the generation of new ideas, and that easier, simpler, quicker ways of being able to engage in commerce and economic development can flow from partnerships between universities and business leaders.
Businesses have a lot to offer higher education institutions, he said – in terms of sponsoring studies, tutoring students, allowing students to visit real businesses and to ground their studies in a real business environment. And businesses can also benefit from associating with universities – with direct access to the latest research, and with a space to put their own ideas to the test.
“The university is a public institution – it's your institution. You can use it as a platform to strengthen your relationship with knowledge production, to get better access to academic thinking, and also to inform academic thinking with real-world experience.”
President of the Cape Chamber, Ms Janine Myburgh, was delighted by the response from Mr Williams, saying: “This engagement has highlighted the need for a much closer working relationship between business and universities. There are real and practical interventions which can make a significant difference to the economic performance of this region. The Cape Chamber is grateful for the open attitude and offer to work more closely, and we commit to engaging more regularly with UWC,”
These kinds of partnerships are particularly important for addressing some of the very real challenges faced by Cape Town, by South Africa, and by Africa as a whole in an increasingly connected world. Africa is the world leader in malaria and HIV infection, but African countries rank near the bottom when it comes to the production of new patents, levels of participation in higher education, and so on – and all this on a continent whose population had grown from 221 million in 1950 to just under 1 billion in 2006.
“Resources do not suddenly multiply because the population multiplies,” he noted. “We have to learn to do more with less. It has to be the best brains coming together – the best ideas coming together – for the highest levels of innovation. That's the only way to release the production forces within society, and build up a world where it's not just the powerful that set the rules. Knowledge production and application are at the core of natural development strategies for gaining competitive advantages in the global knowledge economy.”
Williams explored how far UWC had come since its inception, especially in the Sciences (ranking 2nd in computer science and space science, and 1st in physics, for example, and impressively, 4th in Medicine – particularly impressive in a university without a Faculty of Medicine as such), and how far the university could still go, with the help of businesses.
Williams concluded by urging businesses to also consider business ethics in their dealings. “It's not all about making profit for yourself and your business; you're seeking to have your company on a sustainable path, to build for the future, and not just for today. We have a greater responsibility. So let us all join together in planning out a future we can be proud of.”