UJ’s Marwala jets for innovation through decolonization in higher education

Charles Molele

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is a man on a mission. He wants to make the University of Johannesburg as number one on the African continent.“We are currently number four or five. We are building UJ. We are building UJ to become  the number one university in Africa,” says the soft-spoken Marwala.

Not only does Marwala want to turn the University of Johannesburg as one of the best in Africa, but he wants to ensure that it becomes a leader in artificial intelligence and decolonisation of the curriculum.

In the not-so-distant future, most jobs will be shared among people and machines, Marwala said during an interview with Inside Education on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how this will impact on academic institutions.  

“Some jobs are going to disappear while some new jobs are going to emerge such as a data scientist. As universities we need to prepare our graduates for new jobs. We need to offer multidisciplinary subjects – a degree in social work should include a course in technology and the economy. All graduates need new tools in order to survive the demands of the technologically advanced future,” says Marwala, adding that the idea of long-term jobs will also die as a result of technological changes – there will be more piece jobs, jobs on demand, less stable, less secure and less predictable.

Marwala has written about various subjects on the concepts of artificial intelligence, robotics and the importance of setting out an overarching goal of building and securing an innovation-driven economy through new learning and teaching methods.

“Technological development or revolution has dramatically changed the methods of teaching methods in the lecture rooms – through virtual reality, big data and data analytics, high-speed internet, AI, neuro-technological brain enhancements and genetic editing. The university teacher no longer just gives information in a lecture room. Learning and teaching has become interactive. We are building innovation walls. The learning material is on the internet. When students go to class, they go there to discuss the (niggling) issues with the professor or their lecturer,” Marwala says.

Under Marwala’s leadership, the university recently introduced PET.

“We have recently introduced PET (Politics, Economy and Technology) in order to prepare our students for the innovation-driven economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We are also going to introduce the African module and influence, such as Google Translate, which often gets things wrong when they are translated in an African language.

“With the African module we want the world to understand the problems of Africa from an African perspective. Frans Baleni recently wrote about a self-driving car that doesn’t recognize a black person. This is because the technology is designed with a phenotype of people living in Europe or Asia. We are going to change that if bring the African module into our classrooms.”

Being a vice-chancellor

Marwala was has just completed one year as the new vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg and was reflecting on some of the high and lows of his position.

Marwala succeeded Professor Ihron Rensburg on 1 January 2018 and was appointed vice-chancellor and principal of UJ following a rigorous and extensive selection process by the University Council.

Marwala comes from humble beginnings and was born in a rural village of Duthuni, just outside Thoho ya Ndou in Venda, Limpopo.

At Mbilwi Secondary School, Marwala excelled in his studies and received curious attention from science and maths teachers.

He later won the National Youth Science Olympiad in 1989.  

A precocious child, Marwala managed to balance his school work with herding cattle and watching his grandmother make clay pots.

He says this inspired him to study engineering at university.

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 if they were good or doomed structures.

The method of testing is also used by engineers – referred to as the
Boltzmann’s Equation, according to Marwala.

“That was the motivation. That is how bridges and nuclear facilities are monitored. By listening to vibrations induced by hammer,” said Marwala.

He says the process of decolonization involves incorporating African knowledge systems – including how his grandmother used to make clay pots, into the new curriculum.

Indigenous knowledge

“Decolonization is the opposite of colonization, as know it [to be] like the British conquest of colonies and the consequences of conquest. When you decolonize, therefore, you reverse the system of decolonization. The African perspective must be well represented. It should be a fulcrum of our experience. This means we need to incorporate indigenous knowledge systems and solutions to solve resolve some of our problems by bringing this into the classroom. I learnt a lot about indigenous knowledge from my grandmother when she made clay pots in Duthuni, my rural village in Venda. We need to bring that into our classrooms,” says Marwala.

He says one of the highs of being vice chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg in the past year has been to nurture talent and inspire students to excel in their studies.

Marwala says he recently supported a student from Orange Farm to complete his master’s degree in engineering. The student, according to Marwala, is currently completing a Phd in Engineering from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China. 

“Nothing inspires me more like seeing these students excel in their studies. We create opportunities for them,” says Marwala.

“Some of my low moments as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg has been to see some students who come to university to play and not to study. Another is the degeneration of leadership across the political spectrum. There is also a misconception that leadership only comes from politics. I would like to see students being in various disciplines and becoming leaders in technology, economics and environmental issues. I would like to encourage more students to join the United Nations Society and other well-known societies and become active in these organizations.”

Marwala says he is happy with the university rankings as it relates to University of Johannesburg, but he would like to see it improve in the near future.

Marwala is also not happy with the pace of transformation at UJ.

“We are not entirely happy with transformation of the university but there’s a lot of work to be done. 87% of the student body is black. The challenge is currently with the university’s academic staff, which has not transformed altogether. We need to transform what we teach and how we teach.”

As a parting shot, Marwala says the education system in South Africa needs to be capacitated.

“We need to bring dignity to the classroom. Currently, we have teachers who leave at 1pm. That’s wrong. Teaching must continue until 4pm. Let’s get the basics right,” he says.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala holds a Phd in Engineering from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and completed a Program for Leadership Development at Harvard Business School.

He has supervised more than 50 masters and 21 Phd students to completion. His research interests are multidisciplinary, which include the theory and application of computational intelligence to engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *