With the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly and the representatives of national governments took the historical decision to abide by a most ambitious and challenging agenda for the upcoming 15 years. Apart from the large number of goals and targets which integrate development, environmental and justice issues, the SDGs also call for greater international collaboration efforts and cooperation among states and their people.
Universities, as key actors in higher education and drivers of research, community engagement and innovation, are expected to play a central role in the struggle against poverty, inequality and ecological degradation. Similarly, the private sector has the responsibility to integrate sustainability related issues within their business activities and, as such, university graduates must possess a deep understanding of global sustainability issues and the skills to solve complex problems.
The Framework for the Mid-Term Review of Universities Enrolment Plans (2017-2019), prepared by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) of the Republic of South Africa, places pressure on South African universities to re-evaluate and refocus their curricula to be in line with addressing the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP) of 2011. The NDP states that global solutions must be found to combat the impact of climate change, with due consideration to regional and national conditions. The NDP highlights the importance of environmental sustainability and resilience in the country and stresses the impact that science and technological developments can make on countries to mitigate the effects without undermining growth. However, in order to achieve these goals, the country needs education and research in the field of environmental sustainability that also supports socio-economic development. The vision for 2030 is that the education, training and innovation should be flexible to cater for different needs and produce highly skilled graduates with the skills and knowledge to meet the present and future needs of the economy and society.
Benefits for Stakeholders
In the longer term the universities will benefit from the analysis of the results of the evaluations from the presented modules, which can provide in-depth knowledge related to learner behaviour which can influence curricula design. In this way NMU and UCT will also use the hub as a springboard to assess their current curricula with a view to include and integrate these modules as well as the proven teaching and assessment methods into their existing and future degree programmes, where relevant to industry and the NDP. The feedback from the project as well as the improved module content and methods will be implemented in the curricula at NMU, primarily in their postgraduate programmes, but will also be considered at an undergraduate level. Commitment has been received from top management at both institutions for incorporating the modules into the curricula, where appropriate.
The benefits to stakeholders in the larger community will be as a result of the outputs produced by the participants in the project. In addition to the short term outputs (teaching modules, improved competencies and qualifications) from the hub, several outputs are predicted for the longer term as a result of the creation of the hub (for example research outputs and technologies produced from increased competencies and collaborative networks formed between researchers and industry). These outputs will target several critical areas identified by the NDP, namely:
- Economic and employment development – as a result of increased potential for enhanced and expanded different career opportunities in the field of ICT for sustainability;
- Economic and infrastructure development – potential for improved ICT infrastructure, water management and green energy management;
- Environmental sustainability and resilience skills; and
- Improving education, training and innovation.
The HEdIS project will build and expand on existing collaborations between the three educational institutions and the two countries. It will also provide a pathway to facilitate opportunities for additional future collaborative projects between the two educational institutions and the external stakeholders long after the project closure. The project will also improve innovation and entrepreneurship skills within the network which will facilitate the development and evaluation of technological solutions that could be marketed to industry or implemented in local communities.
Strategic importance and long-term impact
The research team involved in the project at NMU will pass on the knowledge gained throughout the project to other researchers in their university. In this way the hub will provide an ongoing, virtual team providing a knowledge resource for research skills in the field of ICT for Sustainability. The networks formed between senior and early career researchers and between researchers and industry stakeholders will continue long after the project has terminated. During the project term, an ongoing mentorship virtual network environment will be created for specialised technical and research knowledge exchange in the sub-topics within the field of ICT for sustainability. The industry stakeholder network created will provide links that will continue after the project closure. These stakeholders will be able to provide ongoing case studies, data and expertise to assist researchers with practical applications of research projects and opportunities for improving communities.
The project will have a longer term impact that will affect the ongoing sustainability of the project benefits as follows:
- Developing new and lasting research collaborations, achieving transfer of knowledge between participating organisations and contribution to improving research and innovation potential internationally.
- Facilitation of excellent strategic and applied research resulting in greater impact and quality research outputs
- It is envisaged that the projects will result in additional future collaborative projects that will improve the quality of research and knowledge levels of participants.
The indirect benefits to the local communities of the project are thus:
- The reduction of consumption of limited resources (particularly water, energy and waste);
- Enhanced human wellbeing and health due to the support provided by technologies and other research outputs (e.g. support for the elderly and disabled, HIV/AIDS management, malaria, tuberculosis, maternal health); and
- Decreased poverty and inequality by creating employment as a result of capacity building and improved competencies of individuals in the immediate and extended network.