Pursuit of Greatness vs. Academic Drift

The importance of maintaining the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST)’s very definite and specific nature is itself a challenge, if the institution is to eventually become a world leader.

This was shared by educationist Prof Rolf Stumpf, a South African statistician and former Vice Chancellor and Rector of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (Port Elizabeth), during the NUST academic opening session.

Professor Rolf Stumpf | South African statistician and former Vice Chancellor and Rector of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

Prof Stumpf challenged NUST to operate within the set mandate, if international recognition is to be achieved.

“When we speak of NUST becoming a world-renowned institution, we do so absolutely and with no compromise within its institutional mandate area of science and technology coupled to a specific focus of relevance, application and innovation,” he said.

It has been two years since NUST achieved university status and Dr Stumpf says having a central focus has been the makings of a great university. He argued that to be internationally ranked, NUST does not require a different mandate, “neither an expanded one nor a restricted one.”

He warned, “In fact, pursuing a more general higher education mandate (academic drift) will inevitably dilute your effectiveness and impact as a university. To put it bluntly, you do not need to become something else to be excellent, you need to become better, in fact much, much better in what you already are.”

In an era where Namibia desperately needs an institution that focuses on relevance, application and innovation in science and technology, Prof Stumpf cautioned that there is no need for another general university focussing on the entire span of knowledge domains and types.

“The more general a university is, the harder it becomes to develop a distinctive institutional focus. This is due to the paralysing competing interests of all the knowledge stakeholders in such an institution. NUST by virtue of its institutional mandate already has had institutional focus defined in its Act of Establishment,” said Prof Stumpf.

Of late much has been said and written about world-class universities, a status earned through recognition and acceptance of this level of excellence by others in higher education.

However, there exists no definitive set of metrics at the moment that have to be achieved or surpassed in order to achieve such recognition. At most a general set of features characterising world-class universities is beginning to emerge.

He added, “NUST should aspire to demonstrate these features as part and parcel of its institutional fabric while at the same time not disregarding the place and value of institutional performance metrics in its journey towards achieving world-class levels of excellence.”

But Prof Stumpf questioned why African universities yearn for institutional greatness when the socio-economic conditions of the continent and its countries are in tatters.

“Can we aim for being a world-class university while unemployment levels are as high as they are in Africa? While numeracy and literacy levels continue constituting such severe challenges to economic and societal development, while school and university drop-out figures remain unacceptably high, while some people do not have access to clean water…. the list could go on and on.

So for NUST, as for universities elsewhere on our continent, the first requirement is to set your sights for achieving greatness within measure. This, however, does not preclude you from aiming higher each year, while at the same time making deliberate efforts to change the standards of living in Namibia and further afield through your relevant and innovative knowledge outputs and products.”

A vital feature for world-class universities is institutional autonomy as a prerequisite for achieving greatness. Institutional autonomy allows institutions to respond decisively to changing priorities in civil societies and in economic systems both nationally and internationally without first having to navigate through a cumbersome bureaucratic maze, he stated.

Alas, said Prof Stumpf, “Many African universities well-intentioned policies such as national qualification frameworks and concomitant bodies such as Qualification and Accreditation authorities have impeded rather than strengthened the responsiveness levels of universities.

The reason why these policies and structures in many cases have become a hindrance rather than a help is that many of these structures are staffed by officials who have little or no understanding of the true nature and vocation of a university. This means that many of these officials become mere appliers of rules and regulations, creating ever more of them, rather than being stimulators of institutions to achieve greatness.”

He stated that in such instances, an institution such as NUST should be careful not to be seen as an adversary but rather as an upholder of the original intentions of establishing these structures and related policies.

“This you can do by constantly arguing for these structures to play a role of assisting institutions in their development rather than laying unnecessary stumbling blocks in their way. Achieving institutional greatness does not come to those who wait for it to be accorded them but for those who actively pursue it and who earn it!

NUST is well positioned to move from strength to strength. After all the truly great universities did not become so overnight. Within the realistic restrictions and constraints faced by NUST, I urge you all to give it your all. You will never regret it and those coming after you will thank you for it!”

Professor Tjama Tjivikua | NUST Vice-Chancellor

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