Daring in Higher Education, A Crazy Idea?

“…the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are those who do.”

1997 advert by Apple Computers

November 2013 marks the third anniversary of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), an innovative programme that implores higher education to take its role as a global citizen, among many other principles. UNAI must have started with what some might have called a crazy idea. Thanks to that crazy idea, higher education has been reaping the benefits.

This article focuses on some crazy ideas from one new generation university in Bloemfontein, Free State Province, South Africa, called the Central University of Technology (CUT), Free State. It was the first time since the launch of UNAI that a UNAI-themed colloquium and a plenary panel discussion were held in Africa.

These interrelated events were co-hosted by CUT, the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP) and UNAI during the week of 19–23 August 2013. Representatives from UNAI and IAUP, including Alvaro Romo, IAUP Secretary General Elect (2014-17) attended these events. These two meetings were, in turn, anchored by the 17th International Education Association of South Africa that CUT hosted on 21-24 August.


UNAI is a global initiative that seeks to align higher education institutions with the United Nations call on them to make a concerted commitment to use education, research and innovation as engines of global development.

Given CUT’s “Vision 2020”, which locates us in the epicentre of regional development, we could not miss the opportunity to co-host this event. In doing so, we learned more about our role in development and shared with our international partners some of our innovative initiatives on which I will report later.

Global citizenship is a concept that is becoming more significant in our rapidly changing interconnected world. Not only are we interconnected electronically and technologically, but socially, economically and environmentally, too. In fact, long before globalization took root, internationalization among universities had always been there. As global citizens with arguably the best intellectual and other resources at our disposal, universities must tackle the challenges and demands they face.

Among these global challenges and demands are fierce competition for recognition and excellence, the inequality in the political economy of knowledge production, brain drain, dwindling resource allocation and exploding student numbers as a result of the increasing demand for higher education. Furthermore, higher education faces calls for greater social relevance by helping to solve major societal problems. The paradox of increased state steering and accountability imposed on increasingly market-orientated and autonomous universities remains a vexed challenge.

The colloquium and the panel discussion sought to unravel some of these challenges and demands, more so as CUT itself seeks to locate its educational outcomes in societal and, more particularly, regional development, be it social, economic and/or environmental.


The colloquium was on “global citizenship and international partnerships”. This theme was inspired by one of the ten UNAI principles: a commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education.

Distinguished presenters and scholars on internationalization came from as far away as Brazil, Canada, Finland, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Scotland, the United States and, closer to home, from Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana—in addition to our own local experts and colleagues. They engaged and shared their collective wisdom on the nexus of theory and praxis that new generation universities of technology in South Africa should focus on. This, undoubtedly, showed a commitment by representatives from higher education in our own country and the 20 other countries represented toward contributions that universities have to make in this constantly changing world. We explored what we have to do individually and collectively as interconnected and networked universities, in our quest to embed internationalization and to build global citizenship through higher education.

The plenary panel discussion on global citizenship, presented by representatives of UNAI, IAUP, CUT, the University of the West of Scotland and the European Association of International Education went to the very heart of what internationalization should be about. Important definitions and practical directions for what we ought to do in preparing our students as global citizens were suggested.


CUT’s Vision 2020, approved in 2010, is a unique one, as it locates CUT in societal and, particularly, in regional development. This is the arena CUT has chosen to demonstrate the outcomes and impacts of its innovations. This vision allows us to think globally and act locally or regionally without any contradiction.

Our 4Ps implementation framework is in place and we are now deep in the implementation stages. Vision 2020 has led to elaborate PLANS on how we shall realize it. We restructured the university and aligned it to this vision in terms of resource allocation and other institutional processes. We have an annual planning cycle that allows us to reflect, review and evaluate, and refocus our strategies and projects.

We continue to work hard to ensure that our PEOPLE—the staff, the students, our alumni, partners in government, business, industry and other organs of civil society—have the best opportunities to contribute productively in the life of the university and to the economy at large. Various people development programmes are in place. One of these initiatives relates to a group of about 50 staff and students who have proven to be producers of crazy ideas and innovations. They have been brought together and now constitute what we call the A-team.

The focus on our PRODUCTS (our educational, research and innovation programmes) has led to a unique curriculum transformation programme called Strategic Transformation of Educational Programmes and Structures (STEPS). This innovative and broad-based CUT process commenced in 2010 and ended in 2012 with nine brand new demand-driven and user-oriented programmes designed to educate for the workplace. These programmes were the result of consultations with business and industry, government and civil society.

Some people may believe educating for the workplace in a university is an oxymoron, but at CUT and other universities of technology we seek to find this balance among higher education, skills for the workplace, innovation and entrepreneurship. The nine STEPS programmes are in various fields and will be introduced in 2014 and 2015. Renewable energy programmes in the faculty of engineering and information technology are designed to produce high level skills in all technologies associated with this broad field.

Programmes in hydrology and water management are meant to orientate our training towards one of the most critical resources in a water-scarce country like South Africa and in a region that is agriculture-based, but semi-arid. Water security, storage, quality and distribution are big challenges in South Africa. Programmes in agriculture focus on strategies and technologies for food security and agricultural extension to ensure that small and subsistence farmers continue to play their role in our agricultural economy.

A programme in health sciences focuses on health management in a country beset by some of t he most challenging diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS. Another related programme is in community development work, which provides skills for the facilitation of community work, something that has become a key area of activity in South Africa.

In broader humanities, a newly revised Bachelor of Education programme focuses on work oriented themes for the training of teachers, contrary to parochial and theoretical themes of many old style education programmes in South Africa. An innovative programme in visual arts and design combines a number of hitherto disparate programmes in fine arts, photography, graphic design and fashion design into a broad-based programme that builds up generic skills, which can eventually lead to specialization in a sub-field.

There are many other initiatives that are an integral part of our products. In partnership with the Free State Provincial Government, we have established the Free State Information Technology Hub, which trains some of our alumni in state-of-the-art, internationally recognized software development techniques. The training for this is provided by the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering, which in turn has a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This hub has the potential of producing world-class skills in software engineering, primarily for the central region of South Africa and beyond.

In partnership with the national Department of Science and Technology and other local partners, CUT has established the Free State Regional Innovation Forum that brings together universities, other knowledge centres, business and industry, and government. The purpose of this forum is to match regional needs and demands with available innovations from a number of research and innovation centres from CUT and the University of the Free State, our sister university in the region. This forum also seeks to be a springboard for the implementation of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s recommendations from its 2010 regional review of the Free State province and the contributions of universities in city and regional development.

The last of our 4Ps implementation framework is about PENNIES. Through various strategies, CUT has managed to increase its revenue and reallocate resources towards vision 2020 strategies. A newly introduced resource allocation model is helping us to do more of the latter. CUT remains one of the most financially secure public universities even though it never had any historical reserves.

Clearly, CUT is daring and just crazy enough to think it can make a mark in regional development. As some of the initiatives show, we are not simply talking about this, we are doing it. We encourage readers to engage with us, for more information could be shared on many other initiatives that we believe make CUT a regional epicentre of regional development.

Our Vision 2020 statement is: “By 2020, Central University of Technology, Free State shall be an engaged university that focuses on producing quality social and technological innovations for socio-economic development, primarily in the Central Region of South Africa”. In other words, by 2020, CUT will be a centre of knowledge, innovation and excellence producing a critical mass of innovators that directly contributes to prosperity-creation.