Each LMIP Briefing is an evidence-based contribution to informing the development of a skills planning mechanism for South Africa. Briefings showcase our cutting edge research and aim to highlight key trends and potential implications from LMIP research projects.

LMIP Briefing 17

Building interactive capacities: The case of the SKA

In South Africa’s highly unequal education and training system, pockets of excellence exist where resources, networks and skills are concentrated. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) represents a successful attempt at linking these pockets of excellence at the national level, and to global knowledge flows.

The key reason for this is because it has successfully developed ”interactive capabilities” –the capacity for forming effective external linkages to, for example, promote knowledge flows and access to complementary or missing expertise. Also, the SKA effectively connects and aligns knowledge producers (universities, research institutes, and science facilities) with the requirements of employers for knowledge- and technology-intensive innovation outcomes. In doing so, it improves South Africa’s ability to access and compete effectively in the global knowledge economy.

The key findings emerging from this research are:

- The SKA developed strategic internal interface mechanisms to meet its knowledge and skills need. Internal mechanisms such as the Human Capital Development Programme (HCDP) and the university based, National Astrophysics and Space Sciences Programme, have facilitated network alignment between knowledge, technology and skills producing actors with regard to curriculum, knowledge and funding.

Research universities are the main drivers of skills supply within the SKA.  They are organisationally competent to support the development of niche areas of expertise and strong interactive capabilities in academic departments and research groups relevant to astronomy, through structures such as planning, career pathways development, and student support. However, undergraduate curricula in science and technology reportedly change slowly, making it difficult to adapt to rapid and radical change.

TVET colleges have under-performed in terms of interactive capabilities due to internal capacity deficits and general systemic problems that have negatively impacted the sector. Few graduates have been employed through the initial SKA-college engagement. However, through continued engagement to build college capabilities, there has been a gradual improvement in the quality and quantity of technically and artisanally skilled graduates. 

Interactive capabilities vary between academic disciplines and research fields. Science disciplines (astronomy) display more personalised interactive capabilities which are vested in the relationships and networks of individual academics and at the Departmental level. In Engineering, there are formalised, Faculty-level interactive mechanisms that are highly responsive to skills requirements. Close relationships with professional bodies (ECSA) employers and other higher education institutions are facilitated.

On the basis of these findings, the LMIP recommends:

1. To  replicate the SKA-model in other sectors, DHET, together with other government and educational actors, will require  (i) substantial (public) funding support; (ii) high-level political support; (iii) strong coordination amongst relevant actors and stakeholders.  

2. Individual networks for interaction and engagement are critical in the allocation of resources in specialised high-skill, knowledge-intensive sectors. Policy interventions should target and support the development of network mechanisms rather than market mechanisms to align skills supply and demand in these sectors.

3. DHET, with universities, should consider how to improve the pace of curriculum change at the undergraduate level to be more responsive to the knowledge requirements and demands in knowledge-intensive, high-technology sectors.