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By Lenny Naidoo – Applications Sales Director – Public Sector Oracle

While improving the local economy is seen as key in enabling South Africa to address the pressing developmental challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, bridging the skills gap will be vital in order ensuring sustainable and accelerated growth.

This is according to an economic update by the World Bank, which adds that this will require enrolling more students in post-school education and training, as well as raising graduation rates and improving the relevance of skills taught to labour markets’ needs. At the same time, more than half of the youth claim they can’t afford their tuition – placing pressure on the government to either increase bursaries, or reduce fees.

South Africa’s universities aren’t the exception when it comes to the myriad of challenges being faced, with such organisations around the world having to tackle many similar issues. In the end, it comes down to improving access for students, ensuring the quality of education, and that institutions can ensure their relevance in an increasingly digital world. More applicants than spaces, coupled with constrained budgets mean that local educational institutions must do more, with less.

Meeting students, employees’ digital expectations

Today’s university students are the first true digital natives, and this generational cohort promises to turn student-institution interaction on its head. More than half of South Africans now own smartphones. As such, it’s really no surprise that a generation that grew up with mobile apps is looking for the same consumer experience when they go to university. That’s the benchmark against which institutions are being judged. These students expect chatbots, virtual assistants, and other artificial intelligence-driven help in registering for classes, getting financial assistance, or determining which course to pursue.

However, the academic sector moves at a much slower pace than other commercial enterprises when it comes to modernising IT systems, with many institutions still using legacy platforms, and hardware. Yet, switching to cloud not only gives them access to the latest in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, it also means that these institutions can focus on providing quality higher education – rather than IT.

Cloud can help higher education institutions leverage best practices and technology to recruit, retain and develop top faculty and staff, while also creating modern, intuitive experiences that students and staff have come to expect when transacting on campus.

Access to AI and machine learning can not only help improve intake selection by matching students with the right courses, but suggest specific learning paths for each student, and even predict which students are at risk, and intervene with an appropriate action at the right time.

As administrators become more comfortable that cloud-based systems are secure and support strategic initiatives, like how to reduce expenses to keep tuition affordable, a growing number ofhigher education institutions worldwide are turning to the cloud to cut costs, and analyse data to identify more cost-effective ways of running their campuses.

While digital technology is already playing a growing role in advancing higher education locally – driven by increased flexibility, scale and access – research by the University of Cape Town shows that adoption is restricted to historically advantaged and “high-ranked” universities, with the others lagging behind. With a growing number of higher education students enrolling in online courses, the cloud can help eliminate both virtual and physical barriers to access, delivery and collaboration so students can succeed with online learning. 

The road forward for higher education

However, adopting a new solution or migrating to the cloud, on its own, does not constitute institutional transformation, particularly if the solution supports the same processes, transactions, and interactions in the same way.

In Australia, the University of Adelaide used Oracle’s intelligent chatbot to help prospective students quickly access their adjusted Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (the primary criterion for acceptance into university courses) scores in less than 3 minutes via the institution’s Facebook Messenger, instead of waiting up to 40 minutes on the phone and taking another 5 minutes on a call with service agent.

The Central New Mexico Community College is using Oracle’s technology to ensure that new graduates have their academic information authenticated and immutably recorded in blockchain – in addition to the traditional paper certificate – meaning that prospective employers can confidently verify an applicant’s diploma and its details. Even if the organisation ceases to exist one day, these credentials can still be verified on blockchain.

To satisfy today’s students, higher education institutions need to rethink their information systems completely. And they need to begin exploring the technology – and the partners – to help them accomplish this.

While this might be a bit harder for established institutions with entrenched legacy infrastructure, newly built universities – such as Sol Plaatje University and University of Mpumalanga – are well-positioned to take advantage of the latest in technology to change the way in which they operate and educate their students. South Africa is looking to build more universities, and these can be truly ‘born in the cloud’ institutions.

Ensuring that local higher education institutions have access to the right technology will be instrumental in expanding access, bridging the skills gap and accelerating economic growth in South Africa. Oracle has been a partner and contributor to the global collegiate community for years and has the technology and expertise to equip local universities to provide broader access to high quality education over the coming years.