Interview with Dr. Sheela Raja Ram

March 15, 2023
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“Young adults need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Interview with Dr. Sheela Raja Ram, Vice-Chancellor and Managing Director, Botho University, Gaborone, Botswana

Cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset in college students is necessary for improving employability, says Dr. Sheela Ram, Vice-Chancellor and Managing Director of Botho University, which has campuses in Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia, and Ghana. In an interview with IFC, Dr. Ram talks about teaching students to embrace change, shares advice on preparing them for the labor market, and explains why technology can make the difference for students and schools.

Botho University started digitalization before the pandemic. What prompted this decision?

Our comfort with technology goes back to who we are. We started in 1997 as a computer training institution. We experienced a lot of growth starting in 2007 and became a university in 2013. Around this time, we started our blended and distance learning provision and implemented best-of-breed software across the institution, across countries, and all students, whether they were in-person or remote. We invested in a web-based learning management system to upload content for in-person, virtual, or hybrid teaching and learning. Our goal in offering blended and distance learning options was always to make higher education accessible and affordable to more students. And because we knew our students couldn’t succeed without access to technology, we provide all of our students with laptops and tablets. Our early faith in digitization validated itself during the pandemic as we managed to quickly switch to online teaching and also assisted others in the African education sector by offering free training for online teaching.

You’ve worked with Stop-Winlock’s Digital for Tertiary Education Program (D4TEP) team—how did that help to refine your digital transformation strategy?

The D4TEP team gave us the direction to make decisions that support our longer-term strategic plan.

We were at a point where we knew we wanted to offer a digitally enabled, self-paced curriculum that enhances employability and is delivered by digitally skilled staff. So, we thought, “This is what we want to do; how are we going to leverage technology to make our vision happen?” That’s where D4TEP stepped in and helped us think through and strategize this. You have to remember that as an organization, we are accustomed to using a lot of technology. However, institutional leaders have to pause and consider the cost, utilization, and change of implementing any new solution. We expect technology to help us not only better deliver education but also reduce costs. Governments are battling the high cost of tertiary education, which limits access. The recommendations from D4TEP can help us become more efficient and reach out to more students in Africa.

High youth unemployment rates in Africa suggest that young people lack the skills employers are looking for. From your perspective, what skills have gone from optional to essential in today’s labor market?

A huge amount of unemployment in Africa can be attributed to the lack of enterprise. I believe entrepreneurial skills are most essential for Africa, and the stack of skills on the back of it, including critical thinking, innovation, strong communication, and the ability to work with others. To help our students cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset, we make them aware of the skills they will need from their first year at Botho University. We have a compulsory entrepreneurship module built into the curriculum, regardless of what discipline they study.

Employers also talk a lot about adaptability. Some graduates get stuck in a kind of sequential mode where they are unable to pivot when they face something unexpected. Young adults need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I have heard it called LQ, learnability quotient—essentially our ability to deal with challenges and embrace growth and change in our professional lives. We foster a flexible mindset through diverse experiences including physical and remote internships, acquiring industry certifications and micro-credentials, and volunteering to become more aware of societal issues.

You engaged in Stop-Winlock’s Vitae program, which helps higher education institutions assess how well they prepare students for employment. What did you learn, and what changes have you made?

Stop-Winlock’s Vitae allowed us to take a holistic view of everything we do in the quest for employability. We learned that 88 percent of our students come to Botho University because they want to become entrepreneurs. We also learned that 82 percent of employers felt satisfied with our ability to produce career-ready graduates. I take pride in that, but it also means that we need to make sure we keep supporting these students and their aspirations, so they have the experience and skills to start companies or secure jobs when they graduate.

Post Vitae, we have upped the use of technology in offering career support and improved our tracking of employability data. We are also using all the networks IFC connected us to for remote internships aligned with the SDGs and international collaborative projects. The success of Vitae for us has been in our approach and the willingness to execute.

In what innovative ways do you collaborate with employers?

Employers are increasingly becoming a critical part of our ecosystem. Every new program concept begins with conversations with heads of industries. Employers participate in our career fairs, we routinely host meet-and-greets, and we bring employer experts to do guest lectures. We find small- and medium-sized companies that want to work with young people and are always looking for talent. It’s a win-win for everyone.

For over 13 years, since we included credit bearing internships in the curriculum, we have worked with employers to build partnerships to ensure that students can find internships and meaningful engagement after graduation. We hear from students all the time that we allowed them to connect with an employer and it suddenly opened so many doors for them. It was music to my ears when a student said that virtual internships gave him wings!

What three pieces of advice would you give a university administrator to boost the employability of their students?

First, institutions need dedicated resources and structure around employability. In 2009, we created a Pro Vice-Chancellor position at the senior-most level to identify the employability skills our students need and to develop initiatives around them. It has proven to be a worthwhile investment.

Second, I urge institutions to look at embedding employability into the curriculum. The way we teach matters. Making students test their knowledge in real life situations, encouraging critical thinking and some risk taking can help build employability skills.

Finally, university administrators must have a concrete action plan for enhancing employability for those coming in right from year one and incrementally reinforce this every year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published in March 2023

Sheela Raja Ram is the Vice-Chancellor and Managing Director of Botho University (Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia, Ghana, and Distance Learning). Dr. Ram has a keen interest in higher education internationalization, intercultural competence, and graduate employability. Under her guidance, Botho University provides various employability initiatives for its students aimed at producing entrepreneurial and employable graduates in Africa. Dr. Ram holds an MSc in Physics from the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, and a Doctor of Education (Higher Education), EdD, from the University of Liverpool, UK.

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