Stellenbosch University. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Stellenbosch University. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Capitec CEO Gerrie Fourie has been named alumnus of the year by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). The school hopes the Covid-19 pandemic will have retreated sufficiently for him to receive the award later this year at a traditional gala event.

However it is presented, it will be one of the final functions for school director Piet Naudé, who will leave at the end of 2020 for a year’s sabbatical before his official retirement in December 2021. Pandemic permitting – again – he plans to spend most of next year in the German city of Munich, at the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence, and on a project with the European Foundation for Management Development, which runs the Equis international business school accreditation programme.

Ironically, the Munich institute is sponsored by Facebook, currently under intense pressure over its own ethics.

Naudé’s Stellenbosch successor will be English academic Mark Smith, who is moving from dean of faculty at Grenoble Management School in France. Naudé’s predecessor, John Powell, was also British but he found the SA transition challenging and ended his tenure early to return to the UK.

Smith is due in October and will arrive to find a school that, like others around the world, is coming to terms with pandemic-induced new teaching methods.

In fact, says Chris van der Hoven, CEO of USB-ED, the school’s executive education division, the change has been relatively painless so far. The lockdown at the end of March caused an immediate fall in demand for programmes, but once the school demonstrated it could offer “proven” remote education, demand increased. The division changed all its face-to-face programmes into remote ones within 10 days of the lockdown announcement.

Not all clients could take advantage. “Some industries were hit hard and, where we could, we set aside [cancellation] penalties to demonstrate our desire to support them in these crazy circumstances,” says Van der Hoven. “Sadly, some of these businesses will take a long time to recover – assuming they survive at all. As a result, we will need to tighten our own belts and be flexible and sensitive to demand fluctuations.”

Companies will find different ways to manage their education and training budgets in a cost-cutting environment. He says Covid-19 has given schools and clients “a kick in the seat of our collective pants”. Crisis-driven alternatives that might once have been rejected have been tested and found to be very workable. “Some doubters will always remain but the genie is out of the bottle on the client side and they will have the last word about their preferred future.”

What is certain, says Van der Hoven, is that economic and budgetary stress will be present for a long time. “We have a global client who says this crisis is worse than any he has encountered in his career,” he says.

“Our economists have pointed out that GDP growth is negative and potentially five times worse than any time in the recorded economic history of SA since 1948. There will have to be a massive reset in the social, business and political spheres to avoid further losses in both fiscal and human terms.”

The Stellenbosch business school is considering a reset of its own, regarding its planned new campus. A site has been identified in the university town, which will allow the school to move from its long-term base in Bellville, Cape Town. The budget for the new campus is expected to be R500m-R600m, including relocation costs and inflation.

Plans to move in about 2025 may be delayed by two years because of Covid-19. Schools everywhere agree the rapid switch to online teaching is unlikely to be fully reversed, meaning fewer students will be on campuses in future. Naudé says: “We are looking afresh at how we reconfigure the campus. It will probably be slightly smaller than originally intended.”

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