VC’s reflections on TUT Transformation Summit

Having had some time to reflect on the recent TUT Transformation Summit 2017 three things really stood out for Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof Lourens van Staden.
Firstly, the enthusiasm, dedication and commitment of a wide variety of stake holders to embrace the opportunity to engage with brutal honesty on the TUT we currently is, and the one we would like to become. While words were not minced during the debate and discussions, the level of maturity with which some of the tough transformation issues were embarked upon, was refreshing. I am very encouraged that it was abundantly clear that there is a lot of goodwill around to assist and contribute to the transformation of beloved TUT.

Secondly, I realised that, despite the merger of the three former technikons, in the 13 years since the inception of TUT, there is much still to be done to become a truly transformed University aligned with the South African Constitution. In honesty, we still have a long way to go.

Thirdly, it became vividly clear to me, and this excites me, that we have the potential, intellect and ability to become a great South African University that is locally relevant and globally connected.

Transforming the Tshwane University of Technology in a changing world

The urgency for deliberative action is now clearly recognised by the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), the country’s largest residential public university of technology in South Africa, which has responded to the multiplicity of university stakeholders and role-players who have demanded that the institution rapidly advance its transformation towards becoming a people’s university. 

TUT sees its mission as conducting appropriate, relevant, and high-quality research for the good of the community, decolonise its curricula, and thereby better enable its students to fulfil a productive role in determining the future of society.

This was the commitment given by TUT’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Lourens van Staden, at the conclusion of the University’s Transformation Summit 2017 held last week.

This brave commitment seeks to address the unique domestic challenges experienced by TUT while responding to rapidly changing national, regional, and international circumstances. 

“My dream for TUT is to position it, with the support and backing of the TUT community, to be the leading people’s university in Africa,” he said.

“To achieve our transformation goals, it is important that every member of the TUT community takes ownership of the process. This will ensure long-term transparency and accountability.” 

No one is more aware of the tremendous task that lies ahead than Van Staden himself.  He is an alumnus of Technikon Pretoria, one of the three constituent institutions – the others being Technikon Northern Gauteng (TNG) in Soshanguwe and Technikon North West (TNW) in Ga-Rankuwa – that were amalgamated to form TUT in 2004. He was head of TNG at the time and has been at TUT through all its growing pains, bar two years when he was appointed administrator of the Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape. 

And there has been pain, TUT itself was placed under administration and was synonymous with labour conflicts and student unrest as it grappled with the difficulties of merging three apartheid-era institutions into a progressive university of technology. As a consequence of the merger, the newly born TUT was forced to include high levels of indebtedness, variances in staff qualifications, and widely dispersed campuses.

Prof Van Staden is aware of the challenges the University with its 60 000 students housed across seven campuses, faces. The inequalities across the campuses are still being addressed and 13 years down the line there is still a need to forge a common identity for the university and define exactly what it means to be a university of technology and a people’s university. 

To get a perspective on the scale of TUT’s task, just consider that certain of TUT’s faculties are even larger than some of the other public universities in South Africa in totality. 

Then comes the common national issues faced in higher education like #FeesMustFall, the decolonisation of education, and dealing with the scourge of racism, racialisation, sexism, patriarchy and tribalism.

All of these domestic issues are interlinked and cannot be separated from the context of South Africa securing its national liberation during a time of accelerated globalisation and neoliberal ascendency. Today, these contradictions are further impacted by global changes in labour processes whereby artificial intelligence, digitisation, and robotization are fundamentally altering the future of work, access to incomes, and the need to build resilient communities in the face of rapid climate change.

Since August 2016 TUT has been holding broad-based stakeholder institutional conversations related to the university’s transformation agenda. A 30-page draft transformation framework has been distributed for discussion and is largely based on conversations with over 500 staff and students on creating a transformation narrative for the University. 

Then came the summit which saw discussions on various aspects of transformation from the persistent legacies of Racial Capitalism and Apartheid to embracing indigenous knowledge systems and epistemologies of the global South, enabling relevance in the curriculum, and ensuring that student-fees do not further exclude participation in higher education.

Staff raised challenges emerging from their experiences at TUT whilst students made it clear that they were major stakeholders in determining the transformative agenda of the University. Emphasis was placed on responding to the failures of basic and general schooling which relegates the African child to reduced prospects and poverty.

Van Staden, listened and engaged as promised. At the close, he declared that 2018 would be a year of renewed action.

There is clearly common ground – all recognise the need for the University to transform, all want to produce well-rounded graduates who will be able to contribute to society, and for the University to produce quality research for the upliftment and development of communities.

“As a People’s University, we will refocus and ensure that we contribute thought leadership based on our scientific and technological capabilities. We need to help our people in navigating this world-wide transition,” he told the Summit.

Van Staden is very aware of the issues of climate change and its implications for sustainability and resilience. This nexus represents the future common focus area for TUT. 

This month one of SA’s leading climate change experts, Prof Mary Scholes, said the country is getting warmer and at twice the global average. This, said Van Staden, demanded that TUT increases its efforts in better analysing the environment and providing dependable, reliable and trustworthy responses to the fast approaching crisis.

With its wide range of disciplines working together, TUT can clearly become a sustainability centre of excellence in this regard.

But Van Staden will also have to contend with outside factors like funding. He is well aware that most of TUT’s academically deserving students are from poor communities for whom funding is a stumbling block.

While common ground and potential for excellence is evident, Van Staden will need to mobilise the whole of TUT in supporting and advancing quality transformative change. As speaker upon speaker warned, transformation cannot merely be commanded, its processes are indeterminate and sometimes painful, and most importantly: it is not a singular event.

Despite the pain that often accompanies transformation, said Van Staden, the most effective pain killers for TUT would be a strong servant leadership that is rooted in conceptual and intellectual thinking. 

He said management should lead by example, and their role could not be emphasised strongly enough in keeping the momentum going. 

“There should be continuous reflection and engagement at many levels throughout the University while we definitely need to create more diverse platforms to enable such engagement with staff, students and parents,” he said.

After two gruelling days of dialogue and discussions that included some of the loudest, and angriest voices coming from students and young staff members, it was perhaps telling that they included the Vice-Chancellor in their postings to social media. 

Van Staden has promised to harness TUT’s potential through transformation and advancing towards the realisation of a People’s University. TUT’s stakeholders, the people of South Africa, and its role-players: students and staff must now translate their worlds into progressive actions. The country is watching. 

For more information on the Tshwane University of Technology please contact Willa de Ruyter on tel: 012 382 5352 or send an email to