The role of higher education in effective regional development: the collaborative model of Belgium Campus ITVersity Pretoria, South Africa

Enterprise, employment, education, and innovation are the key levers for effective regional development. Education, particularly, is one of the few areas where both public and private investments reaches record high levels. However, ‘What is higher education’s regional engagement all about?’. What are its drivers, and barriers? What does it mean to the governance and management of higher education institutions (HEIs), and how does it fit with the pursuit of academic excellence?


From its inception, Belgium Campus ITversity (BC ITversity) has embraced a participatory approach to its core business of education and knowledge valorisation in the field of ICT and AI. Consequently, it is fully committed to an active role in South Africa’s regional development evidenced by BC ITversity’s achievements throughout its 20 years of existence. These include: 1. contributions to labour market upskilling made by highly skilled graduates apt to support new industries’ emergence; 2. contributions to regional innovation networks in Gauteng, the “smart province”; 3. The creation of BC ITversity structures for steering and support graduates towards regional engagement; 4. advocacy in raising regional innovation strategy processes’ quality by helping create collective innovation assets.


With economic, human and social costs, the COVID-19 outbreak, on top of an already rapidly changing world, has altered the global education landscape far beyond expectation. The complexity of the worldwide challenges forces us to think and act differently. We need to co-redefine issues and their solutions, we need co-creation, and multi-partner collaboration. Various development models mirror this complexity, e.g. the Planet-People-Profit model. There is a phenomenal technological acceleration in a globally connected world where the knowledge economy has become of paramount importance. At the same time, business and innovation models are being redefined to seek sustainability, unfortunately educational models still seem to be stuck in a bygone era.


Changes are swift, fast, and sometimes unpredictable. We have so-called black-swan events, which can be extremely disruptive. A prime example is the COVID-19 pandemic which causes the lockdown of public life and industry all over the world. This has given rise to novel trends, challenges and solutions, such as online or distance teaching and learning, remote working, and increasing on-line commerce. The nature of technological, economic and social activities is disruptively changing, driven by the necessity to respond and adapt. The human experience keeps changing, with cultural implications. Just think of the effect of ubiquitous access to unlimited information, and social media and services.


One of the major tools and enablers of adaptation is the ICT, AI and Big Data complex, core of the fourth industrial revolution. This is the driving force behind a lot of new development, decision making and economic activities. It is the driver behind the development of the aforementioned human experience, including the culture and entertainment industries.


BC ITversity, as a strong advocate for change and regional development, has always understood the fundamental need for an ecosystem-centric approach to a smarter adaptation strategy by joining forces with the other actors in the ecosystem. The triple helix of higher education innovation (teaching, research and engagement/services) was the basis for the development of the quadruple and even quintuple helix. This is the set of interactions between academia, industry and government, to foster economic and social development. The quintuple helix underpins a win-win situation between ecology, knowledge and innovation, creating synergies between economy, society, and democracy. It places sustainability at the centre of the agenda in assuring a sustainable future for humankind and the planet. The challenges prompt us to collaborate in mastering the knowhow and the dynamics of co-operation, co-definition and co-creation in solution finding with the various regional stakeholders.


One important issue is the global talent deficit. A 2018 Korn Ferry study examined talent supply and demand in 20 economies across the world, and concluded that the biggest issue is the availability of enough human capital to fill the vacant jobs. Indeed, the study finds that by 2030, there will be a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people.  Left unchecked, in 2030 that talent shortage could result in about $8.5 trillion in unrealized annual revenues.


For South Africa the current official unemployment rate is 29%. Having the available talent, would make the difference between having a recession or a growing economy. Governments, organizations and universities must make talent strategy a key priority and take the necessary steps now to educate, train, and upskill their existing workforces. Graduates need to be ready for immediate employment in industry, additionally, they have to be future-fit. This requires a number of additional skills, such as leadership, meta-cognitive insights and life skills. This is a field education largely still must include in their curriculum design, be it in the overt or hidden curriculum. Tacit or implicit knowledge of these skills is no longer sufficient.


BC ITversity calls it the Global Competence Skill Set: the knowledge, attitudes, skills, character and behaviour necessary to thrive in today’s interconnected world. The tools and didactics that are specifically used differ somewhat from the traditional approaches and include action-based learning, student-to-student learning, co-creative and collaborative skill development, rapid prototyping, student engagement and internships, and the Learning Factory approach. These are key elements and they are always present in research, teaching and learning, knowledge valorisation and community engagement. Also, it is not just a target as such, it is a process of creating continuous synergy and dynamic exchange.

This constitutes an integrated innovation ecosystem. Given our expertise in ICT, BC ITversity focused its last academic year on concrete and integrated projects in the fields of renewable energy, agriculture, smart cities, educational design, mobile health, and aviation.

There is an active collaboration with 80+ companies, national and international, which include (Virtual) mobility programmes, (full) bursaries for 40 % of the students, special focus groups, and R&D funding. We also secure government funding for development co-operation projects.

This curriculum design has proven to be both very effective and efficient. All our graduates are employed, industry and community are involved and happy with both the process and the final results, and the students testify that the transition from learner to active employee and community member is very smooth and easy.