International collaboration boosts forestry education
Five South African universities have partnered with local and international stakeholders to introduce cutting edge, climate-smart forestry and entrepreneurship to their forestry courses. Norman Dlamini of Forestry South Africa (FSA) explains the aims and objectives of the programme, known as FOREST21:-
What is FOREST21?
FOREST21 is a collaborative project between South Africa, Finland and Norway titled “the 21st Century Climate-Smart Forestry Education for Livelihoods and Sustainability in South Africa”. The FOREST21 initiative is a capacity-building project in the area of higher education, involving the five South African higher education institutes offering forestry qualifications as well as two universities in Finland and one in Norway. The FOREST21 initiative has three core pillars: climate-smart forestry, forestry entrepreneurship and student-centred teaching methods.
The project is generously co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union to the tune of € 999, 965.00 and will be officially launched on 14 April 2021, although the logistical aspect of the project started in mid-January.
Who is involved?
The project was conceptualised by FSA in a bid to improve the economic and environmental contribution of the industry to South Africa’s wellbeing. FSA played a coordinating role in packaging the proposal. There are eight core FOREST21 partners: Aalto University, Fort Cox Agriculture and Forestry Training Institute, Häme University of Applied Sciences, Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences, Nelson Mandela University, Stellenbosch University, Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Venda. These work alongside FSA and several associate partners, including education authorities in South Africa like the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation (DHESI), Council for Higher Education (CHE), South Africa Qualifications Authority (SAQA) and the Fibre Processing and Manufacturing Sector Education Authority (FP&M SETA); other key universities in the area of climate change - Witwatersrand University (WITS), University of Pretoria (UP), University of Mpumalanga (UMP) - and key stakeholders, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Forests Industry in South Africa, Finland and Norway and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).
Why is an international approach so vital?
An international approach offers the opportunity of establishing partnerships and friendships that go beyond the remit of the original programme and will almost certainly outlive the three-year lifespan of FOREST21. There is also the co-generation of knowledge, the value of which should never be underestimated. The FOREST21 European partners are recognised as leaders in their field, bringing these trend leaders to assist South African higher education institutions to build local capacity in these areas of interest will improve the global competitiveness of the South African forestry industry. This willingness of our international collaborators to offer their expertise to this programme and assist South African HEI’s reform their curriculum will benefit South African learners for generations to come.
We must not forget the forestry landscape in South Africa covers five very diverse provinces and this is represented by the five South Africa higher education institutions spanning Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. In many ways, connecting that talent found within each of these institutions is very much like an international experience in itself.
The benefits from this international approach are already materialising, from the conception of this project in 2019 and the flurry of emails, digital meetings (before they became mandatory) and telephone calls with the core partners that proceeded; we have already learnt a lot from one another and the experience to date has been nothing but extremely positive. Since the announcement in July 2020 that funding was granted, knowledge transfer has increased exponentially and the network has widened with new associate partners coming on board in November 2020. All these benefits have been realised before the project officially launched, so I am incredibly excited to see what the future has in store.
What is hoped to be achieved?
The overarching project aim is to improve the forestry curriculum offered in all five institutions of higher education offering forestry programmes in South Africa.
FOREST21 will mainstream important concepts like the implementation of climate-smart forestry along the value chain while championing entrepreneurial innovativeness in forestry education. Through a countrywide curricula reform of forestry education at higher education institutions the FOREST21 project looks to equip graduates with problem-solving skills, an entrepreneurial mindset and climate-smart thinking. While curriculum improvement will not be uniform through all the universities, each participating university will choose what to implement from the pool of generated knowledge and package it to suit their local context.
FOREST21 also seeks to improve interactions amongst South Africa’s universities, as well as between them and the wider forestry industry, and ultimately promote international partnerships that will help shape the future of South African forestry.
Why is it important that we teach entrepreneurship at university?
Like in many other African countries, and indeed around the world, the education system in South Africa traditionally teaches us to become better workers, but not necessarily creators of job opportunities and certainly not creators of new products and services that could solve the challenges humanity currently faces.
As more people add their voice to the need for educational reform at higher education institutions, we can no longer ignore their point that traditional educational systems were designed to produce glorified labourers, who cannot help themselves if no one employs them. While this might sound very harsh, especially to anyone who had to work incredibly hard to earn their qualification, the comment is supported by the ever-increasing number of struggling, unemployed university graduates in South Africa year after year – rich in many years of expensive university education, but financially broken.
For many, entrepreneurship seems to offer a solution to South Africa’s triple ills of poverty, unemployment and inequality. As such, it is a solution that needs to be thoroughly investigated and hopefully implemented. Closer to home, the forestry industry needs graduates that are innovative to solve the real-work challenges in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. This was highlighted in a study by Magaga and Scholes (2019) that found the forestry industry in need of graduates that will be innovative, proactive, and have a reasonable level of autonomy and competitive aggressiveness to take the industry a step further. All this is aligned to cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset among the graduates while they are still training. On a personal note, I believe entrepreneurship training should start earlier in the schooling system but ensuring this is the case at a university level is a good start.
What is climate-smart forestry?
The time to stand together, globally, to respond to the threat posed by climate change is now – it is our responsibility, not just to our children and future generations of their children who will inherit the earth one day from us, but to every living organism that inhabits the earth.
The role of forestry in this is becoming ever more prominent and as such, climate-smart forestry has never been more relevant. Climate-Smart Forestry is a targeted approach to increase the climate benefits from forests and the Forest Sector, in a way that creates synergies with other needs related to forests. The definition may sound complex but it can be simplified to the Sector’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase its efforts mitigating against climate change.
In many ways, South African forestry is ahead of the game having embraced sustainable forest management many years ago. Today, over 80% of plantation forestry area in the country has been certified by the international Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) as sustainably produced timber, something as a country we should take pride in. As a sustainable, renewable industry that actively sequestrates carbon, the sector offers numerous potential solutions to climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies and is already seen as having a central role in South Africa’s green economic recovery and circular economy.
How will the students benefit?
There are several ways students will benefit, both immediately and in the future. Immediate benefits will see 80 students, ten from each of the participating universities, selected to be part of this initiative. These students will work as international teams of learners, contributing and testing the knowledge generated as the new curricula are developed. They will also be involved in solving real-life problems experienced by the Forestry Industry, which will require teamwork and international collaboration. Perhaps, most excitingly for those involved, they will participate in the activities hosted by each of the partnering universities. This will see students globe hop from a curriculum development workshop in Evenstad, Norway to two pedagogical workshops in South Africa, one in Thohoyandou and the other in George. Then there is a climate-smart workshop in Hämeenlinna, Finland, followed by a forestry entrepreneurship workshop in Helsinki, Finland, before the closing workshop in Pretoria, South Africa. While COVID requirements are in the back of everyone’s mind and plans are being made, for now only the initial kick-off next week planned for Stellenbosch has had to be digital.
For the students involved, this is a huge opportunity affording them unrivalled networking experiences, as well as a host of transferable skills as they develop the various aspects of entrepreneurship such as problem solving, innovativeness, proactiveness and competitive aggressiveness. They will be exposed to leaders in their field and knowledge gained from the frontiers of global forestry.
More importantly, they will make an immeasurable contribution to the improvement of curricula for the students that will follow them. The contribution of this class of students also extends to sharpening the skills of the academic staff in offering excellent student-centred teaching and learning that is customised to the local context. There is no doubt that upcoming students will benefit from this immeasurably, with the improved curriculum ensuring they are better equipped to respond to the challenges of climate change and other unforeseen events.
How will the industry benefit?
The forestry sector too will see both long- and short-term benefits of this project.
Short-term, during the duration of FOREST21, FSA members can host international teams of FOREST21 participants to solve real problems. Providing them with access to the collective wisdom of South African and international experts, lecturers and students, all intent on finding innovative, workable solutions.
In the medium to long-term, they can expect generations of forestry graduates ready to actively contribute to the world of work as a proactive, innovative, problem-solving asset to the industry. They will be able to co-create partnerships with higher education institutions that look to continue to strengthen the calibre of student graduating way beyond the three-year lifespan of the FOREST21 project.
The industry is already a major employer of those living in the rural communities that neighbour the forestry landscape. Working with newly qualified graduates with entrepreneurial skill sets, the Industry will be able to increase the impact it has in these communities.
How will South Africa benefit?
As a nation with a young population, we need to start seeing the youth of today as the leaders of tomorrow. They are the individuals who will take South Africa forward and dictate the nation our country becomes. When looking for future leaders, trendsetters, innovators and great minds of tomorrow, one of the first places to start is our country’s universities – it will be the students of today who will shape the South Africa of tomorrow.
The FOREST21 programme acknowledges this, seeking to ensure the students of today are given the correct entrepreneurial skill sets to face the global challenges of tomorrow (and today) like climate change. So while they are the major beneficiaries of the project, indirectly the whole country will benefit from tomorrow’s leaders being better equipped to face the challenges of today, tomorrow and in the future in a way that is both sustainable and ensures South Africa remains globally competitive.
Ultimately the hope is that FOREST21 interventions will increase employment opportunities for forestry graduates, as well as those graduating in other disciplines who adopt similar curriculum revisions upon the success of this initiative, thus aiding in the reduction of the current 32.5% unemployment rate. FOREST21 should help reduce the average age class of South African entrepreneurs, currently set at 45 - 54 years old according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, by introducing entrepreneurism as a feasible concept in the minds of the graduating youth. We also hope, that by providing graduates with the skill sets required for entrepreneurs we can improve the survival of new enterprises in South Africa beyond the seemingly unbreakable 42-month ceiling. Perhaps most importantly, FOREST21, and the graduates that result from it, will play a major role in South Africa’s response to climate changes and the mitigation strategies put forward.
Related article: New offerings boost productivity development in SA