BACKED BY BUSINESS
Many universities have established links with business and industry. However, few have the same close relationship with employers as the Vaal University of Technology in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa. This institution ensures its curriculum is relevant to the workplace by giving executives the power to make improvements. As well as interviewing academics, they will look round engineering workshops and assess the equipment being used.
“We have representatives from 50 companies in South Africa who sit on our advisory panel for engineering and review the programme every two years,” explains Professor Kuzvinetsa Dzvimbo, Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic and Research at the university. “They have the authority to point out anything in degree courses that does not prepare students for the world of work. They can even ask us to stop until the curriculum is revised. This gives us the confidence that what we are offering is up-to-date and relevant to employers.”
Linking with business
This synergy with industry benefits Vaal University’s 19,000 students in other ways too and increases their chance of future career success. For up to eight months, each student gains invaluable first-hand experience by being attached to a company. This could involve a stint at Ford for mechanical engineering students; a spell with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for accounting students; or with Anglo American for those on mining courses.
In addition to its focus on science, engineering and technology, the university offers management science degrees that provide training, for example, in marketing and human resources. The varied curriculum at Vaal appeals both to South African students and those who come from further afield including from the UK, the US and Germany. Whatever the course or the country, all students at Vaal are encouraged to develop an entrepreneurial spirit.
“We instil in them a sense of commercialism,” says Professor Dzvimbo. “We develop their abilities as critical thinkers so they can push boundaries and come up with innovative approaches.” If they are working for a fuel company, this may involve developing new ways of using energy or a high-quality but affordable product. Or working on affordable electric cars – as one group of Vaal students is currently doing. And innovation is not restricted to engineering disciplines alone. A project set up by those studying biotechnology is exploring how protein can be extracted from the soya bean to produce cheap but highly nutritious foods for the elderly and the poor.
An international perspective
The international partnerships that exist between Vaal and other universities also have a similar focus – to understand and adopt mind-sets that deliver such successful outcomes. “Our links with academic institutions worldwide have a very specific purpose,” says Professor Dzvimbo. “It’s to ask ‘how have you achieved this?’ We discover why the German approach has made it an economic powerhouse, and how India has surpassed others in producing generic drugs. What we learn we pass on to our students.”
Vaal is a university that is as rigorous in the standards it sets for its staff as those it asks of its students. It is always looking for ways in which to improve. Above all, Vaal’s drive is to produce graduates who are not just experts, but experts who are keen to serve their company and their country for the greater good.