Kobus Jonker. Picture: SUPPLIED
Kobus Jonker. Picture: SUPPLIED

When Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) first came calling, asking him to kick-start its business school, Kobus Jonker wasn’t interested.

He’d got Nelson Mandela University’s (NMU) school off the ground nearly 20 years ago and, approaching 60, was in no mood to repeat the exercise — and certainly not 1,100 km away from his home in Port Elizabeth.

But the opportunity for one last hurrah eventually proved irresistible. Which is why Jonker now sits in the corner office of a high-rise in Tshwane, facing one of the biggest challenges of his career. He’s TUT Business School’s first full-time director in five years.

Since the University of Pretoria decided to base its business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science, in Joburg, TUT’s has been the only business school in Tshwane. But it’s barely visible. Its only offering is an MBA programme which, despite achieving all the academic and teaching standards required for accreditation by the Council on Higher Education, has an image problem.

Three years ago, market research for the FM found that TUT’s qualification was considered by MBA graduates from all SA’s business schools to be near the bottom of the status league.

Jonker has experienced this before. When NMU launched its school through the 2005 merger with Port Elizabeth Technikon, he was tasked with getting it started. It also had zero status at the time, but through slow, steady progress, it has grown into a respected, internationally accredited school.

Jonker says: "There are a lot of similarities between NMU then and TUT now. There’s no reason to think we can’t follow a similar path. The important thing is not to be too ambitious too quickly. Open the doors that will open. They will lead you to other doors."

One of NMU’s advantages was a supportive university with a vision for its school. "Without that, you’ll get nowhere," says Jonker. Until now, TUT has controlled its school with an iron fist. Executive education and even the postgraduate management diploma (PGDip) required to enter the MBA programme have been offered elsewhere in the university. Jonker says that in accepting the director’s job in January, he told TUT management that the school must be allowed to broaden its offerings. The PGDip, at least, is going there.

Corporate and individual clients want to deal with a business school, not a university administration. History shows that when SA business schools underperform, lack of autonomy from the parent university is usually a contributory factor.

A Port Elizabeth experience Jonker has already started to pass on is the importance of the motor industry. The Eastern Cape is home to several motor companies and scores of their suppliers, and they have become core clients of NMU.

Jonker wants TUT to follow a similar path. Ford, BMW and Nissan all have vehicle assembly plants in Tshwane, as do a number of truck companies and many more components manufacturers. "We need to target them for industry-specific executive education," says Jonker. "Those I have spoken to say they would definitely use us if we provide what they need." He is planning a number of free masterclasses to introduce the school to the industry.

He admits surprise at the almost nonexistent brand image of the school. Many of the companies he has spoken to didn’t know it existed. Neither, tellingly, did officials within the Gauteng provincial government.

One way to raise the profile could be to rename the school. There are discussions about creating a standalone brand without TUT in the title. Jonker also wants to broaden its geographic reach by offering programmes through the university’s campuses in Mbombela and Polokwane.

He has signed a five-year contract. During that time, he aims to win international accreditation for the school’s MBA programme through the UK-based Association of MBAs. Several local schools have already done so. "If we can do that, it will raise us to the status of the best schools in SA," says Jonker. "It’s the minimum we should be striving for."