Maverick Citizen

HIGHER EDUCATION

New vice-chancellor Francis Petersen aims to make the University of Pretoria ‘a global intellectual hub’

New vice-chancellor Francis Petersen aims to make the University of Pretoria ‘a global intellectual hub’
Professor Francis Petersen has been appointed as the vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Lulama Zenzile)

The University of Pretoria’s new vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Francis Petersen, is well aware of the challenges faced by the university and seeks to address them.

Promoting an institutional culture characterised by care, belonging, diversity and inclusivity will be the key focus of the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) new vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Francis Petersen.

Petersen will step down as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Free State on 30 September.

His tenure at UP comes into effect on 1 October, when he will take over from interim vice-chancellor and principal Professor Themba Mosia.

university of pretoria kupe

Former University of Pretoria vice-chancellor and principal Professor Tawana Kupe, (Photo: Sally Shorkend)

Mosia occupied the post after the former vice-chancellor and principal Professor Tawana Kupe resigned in July 2023.

“This culture will encourage open dialogue, robust engagement and integrity in everything we do,” Petersen said. 

Petersen, who has a PhD in engineering from Stellenbosch University, said he subscribed to UP’s aspiration to be a leading research-intensive university in Africa, globally recognised for its quality, relevance and impact, making a difference to society locally and globally. 

Petersen said his vision was based on fairness, integrity, social justice, collegiality, freedom of thought and expression, and environmental stewardship.

“These values are not just ideals; they must be visibly demonstrated and practised throughout our university. My goal is to propel University of Pretoria forward as a prominent global intellectual hub, particularly focusing on Africa. I envision the University of Pretoria as a vibrant meeting place for scholars and thinkers to engage with and tackle the continent’s challenges and opportunities head-on,” Petersen said.

Challenges

Like most South African universities, he said, UP faced challenges.

“These challenges include disparities in access and equity, financial constraints affecting quality education and research, ongoing efforts towards transformation, addressing the skills gap between graduates and industry demands, and intensifying global competition for talent, partnerships and funding.” 

Addressing these issues, Petersen said, required strategic initiatives focused on enhancing access, quality, diversity and global engagement while ensuring financial sustainability and responsiveness to evolving educational and societal needs.

Despite efforts to increase access to higher education, he said there were still significant disparities, particularly among historically disadvantaged groups such as black South Africans, women and those from rural areas.

“Financial constraints, inadequate preparation at the secondary level and limited infrastructure in certain regions contribute to these disparities.”

He said efforts were ongoing to transform higher education to be more inclusive and representative of South Africa’s diverse population, and to decolonise the curricula.

This involved addressing issues of institutional culture, curriculum development and the recruitment and retention of diverse staff and students.

“Higher education institutions in South Africa often face financial challenges, with a decline in government funding and increasing demands for resources. This can impact the quality of education and research, as well as the ability to provide adequate student support services.”

Ensuring and maintaining high academic standards across institutions was another challenge.

“There is often a gap between the skills graduates possess and the skills demanded by the job market. This highlights the need for closer collaboration between higher education institutions and industry to ensure that graduates are adequately prepared for the workforce,” he said.

Technological developments and digitalisation, he said, had significantly transformed education, making it more accessible and flexible.

“South African universities now face escalating competition from institutions worldwide in attracting talented students and researchers, and forging international partnerships and securing funding opportunities.”   

Enduring problems

Outgoing interim VC Mosia said the university was addressing challenges brought about by the instability of NSFAS before the appointment of Freeman Nomvalo as its administrator. These entailed delays in the disbursement of allowances to students.

Read more in Daily Maverick: University vice-chancellors reveal campus challenges, NSFAS confirms non-payment concerns

Former VC Kupe, who is currently an independent researcher and freelance higher education strategy adviser, said there were enduring problems and emerging issues facing the sector.

These problems were related to the long-term sustainability of the sector, given budget cuts over the years and the lack of a sustainable student funding model that covered not just the poor but also the “missing middle” and postgraduate students at every level so that no student was left behind.

“The current flawed model results in a highly indebted sector and students with debt. It also deters postgraduate studies when we need highly educated and trained postgraduates for all sectors of society,” Kupe said. 

He said it was necessary for South Africa’s development that more students who had passed higher-grade maths in matric enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programmes at universities.  

University of the Free State performance

Petersen was appointed as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Free State on 1 April 2017 and was reappointed for a second five-year term on 31 March 2022.

At the time, the university had been attracting negative headlines because of racism-related incidents. These also occurred last year.

When he was appointed, Petersen said he had a transformation plan for the university. The university’s spokesperson, Lacea Loader, said the university’s achievements during Petersen’s first term included the implementation of an integrated transformation plan (ITP) for social justice.

Further highlights included the development of differentiated research, internationalisation and innovation strategies, and facilitating an institutional governance project.

His second term included the continuation of the ITP with a primary focus on the social justice imperative.

University of the Free State council chairperson David Noko said Petersen’s tenure had been characterised by remarkable leadership.

 “He brought stability to the university and placed great emphasis on the institution’s visibility and its impact on society,” Noko said. DM

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