Interview with Jonathan Louw

December 14, 2022

“Collaboration is the way to meaningfully transform higher education across Africa.”

Interview with Jonathan Louw, CEO, Honoris United Universities, Johannesburg, South Africa

Higher education institutions that want to prepare graduates to enter the workforce must collaborate to design programs in line with today’s labor market, says Jonathan Louw, CEO of Honoris United Universities, the largest pan-African private higher education network. In an interview with IFC, Louw talks about working closely with employers, the benefits of operating in a competitive environment, and the three pieces of advice he would give administrators trying to improve student achievement.

What prompted the founding of Honoris United Universities?

Honoris United Universities emerged from a private equity venture. A majority shareholder, Actis, wanted to improve higher education, and they believed that collaboration across Africa was the route for building better, more effective higher education. The team looked for best practices in employability and academic excellence and acquired institutions in Morocco, South Africa, and Tunisia. These became the foundation of Honoris. Since then, we have grown to include more than 15 institutions across 10 African countries in 32 cities. Our collaborative network is about transforming the lives of young people and working adults.

According to the United Nations, Africa has the world's youngest and fastest-growing population, with 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa under 30. How will higher education institutions be able to meet the demand for education?

Higher education institutions must continuously evaluate how they deliver education if they want to reach as many students as possible and provide a curriculum that meets students’ needs. The more private sector institutions collaborate with other education providers, the more we can increase access and improve quality standards. And the more students we attract, the more affordable the programs become, which drives accessibility.

Talk a little more about what you’ve done to prepare students for labor market needs.

Of course, educational institutions need to help prepare students for success after graduation. Post-secondary institutions need to focus on the employability agenda. At Honoris, we work with over 700 employers across Africa to ensure our curriculum delivers the skills required to secure entry-level jobs and help working professionals move up.

We believe it’s important to prepare graduates to work in key employment sectors in Africa. To that end, we’ve built what we call centers of excellence for business education, health sciences, engineering, IT, and, more recently, digital and creative arts. Our programs combine online and in-person instruction with state-of-the-art learning environments.

But it’s not enough to have these programs; you need to be sure they work. So, we measure impact by tracking employment, access to quality jobs, and economic empowerment. Across the Honoris network, overall, we have an 83 percent employability rate measured by employment within six months of graduating. These are the outcomes we measure to make sure our programs are in line with what the labor market dictates.

Then, of course, we also leverage those 700 employer partnerships to adapt our curriculum so our students are fit for purpose through work-integrated learning, internships, immersive learning environments and innovative curricula. Lastly, we also collaborate with these companies to upskill their existing employees through professional certifications, executive training, and part-time MBAs, which benefit employers and employees.

You worked with IFC’s Vitae program, which helps higher education institutions assess how well they prepare students for employment. What did you find?

Yes, we worked closely with Vitae through our Tunisia-based institution IMSET, the largest private TVET provider in the country. The study showed positive results in the employability and preparation of IMSET graduates, owing to its significance as the leader in the MENA region. However, we discovered that we have some work to do in strengthening female employability. The analysis showed that while 57 percent of our students are women, they get fewer jobs than their male counterparts and are paid less. While the Vitae advisory team recognized our faculty development opportunities and strong employer relationships, we also learned that we have some improvements to make around career coaching, resume writing, interview practice, and salary negotiations for female graduates.

With education demand soaring in Africa, is it challenging to maintain quality while growing?

Creating collaboration between institutions and encouraging academic partnerships can strengthen quality. For instance, we invite faculty across our 15 institutions to our Annual Academic Summit to discuss pressing topics in higher education and innovations to support students. Professors are exposed to new ways other faculty teach or new delivery models, like augmented or virtual reality, simulations that spark changes to their curriculum. Using various tools to encourage collaboration, like learning management systems and graduate portals, we challenge our faculty to raise standards. We also train staff on the digital transformation of education to help them stay abreast of the latest trends in education, teaching, and learning

Do you find edtech useful in reaching students and teaching new skills?

We are guided by the needs of our students. We partner with education technology (edtech) companies to enrich learning experiences and help students achieve the best possible outcomes. This includes BC Diploma for tamper-proof blockchain certificates and Lecturio for an adaptive learning platform for Health Sciences students. We also offer web development and data science boot camps through a partnership with Le Wagon. We also collaborate with Eon Reality, an augmented and virtual reality platform company mainly specializing in health science, engineering, and IT. We also developed a 21st Century Skills Certificate program with leading edtech providers to teach essential digital and soft skills needed for the new world of work. Currently, blended learning represents about 30 percent of our network offerings in addition to purely online modules and fully on-campus learning in our institutions.

What are three pieces of advice you would give leaders of higher education institutions trying to improve student outcomes in today’s rapidly changing labor market?

The first is to stay ahead of the curve. The more you engage with regulators, employers, and your own faculty, the better you will be able to gain the experience and the knowledge to stay ahead of the curve. We should also be discussing new ideas and different paths to improving outcomes.

Second, cultivate many community partners and stakeholders and pursue a shared global vision. Collaboration is the way to meaningfully transform higher education across Africa.

Lastly, enshrine a culture of adaptability. Encourage agile leaders and faculty to harness opportunities in the fourth industrial revolution.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published in December 2022

Dr. Louw brings nearly 30 years of general management and board experience across developed and emerging markets in private equity, healthcare, and FMCG. He joined Honoris United Universities from the South African National Blood Service (SANBS), where he served as CEO of the organization across 185 sites and 2,700 staff. Previously, he served in various leadership roles in private equity across healthcare and pharmaceuticals and was the CEO of JSE listed Adcock Ingram for many years.
Dr. Louw began his career in medicine in 1993 as a practicing doctor following the completion of his studies for a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MB. ChB) from the University of Cape Town, where he also holds an MBA.

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