Engagement is transformation: the university and community engagement

15-10-21 USAf 0 comment

The mutual inter-dependence of transformation and community engagement was the grounding question for this engagement hosted by the Council on Higher education. Covering a range of policy drivers, different interpretations of “communities”, the political economy of higher education and the power of academic capitalism, the engagement sought to outline a more nuanced academic environment based on collaboration and creating solutions that will address ongoing inequality.

Chaired by Dr Whitfield Green, the CEO of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the session titled Reimagining University Engagement within the Context of a Responsive, Responsible and Transformative University sought to unpack community engagement within the context of transformation. This is a central concern for the CHE as its daily work is about building a stable, high functioning higher education sector. For Dr Green, achieving this means ‘that we must unbecome what we are currently to become what we need to be”.

The opening remarks were offered by Professor Themba Mosia (left), Chairperson of the Council on Higher education and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Pretoria. He questioned the extent to which community engagement had been mainstreamed into institutions. Despite the policies that had been put in place, for him, it was still left to the discretion of the specific university. All too often, this meant token efforts rather than a real commitment. This applies equally to community engagement as it does to transformation.

Referring to The White Paper on Higher Education (1997), he notes that in many spheres of the universities’ operations, there has been, and remains, a disjunction between policy objectives and the practical implementation of said objectives, between knowledge production and knowledge application. It is no wonder, Professor Mosia continues, that the perception of the ivory tower university still prevails and yet there is a desperate need for the sector to regain its relevance within the South Africa context. The sense of self-imposed isolation derives from the competitive modality within which our universities operate. He acknowledges the many constraints that impact on the university but again calls for transcending that through collaboration rather than competition to become increasingly responsive to the community.

Fixing what ain’t broke

Re-imagining University Engagement within a Context of Responsive, Responsible and Transformative University was the focus of Professor Phindile Lukhele-Olorunju. She is the Director of Research Management at the University of Mpumalanga. She said her input was about bringing a new perspective to something that already exists. This approach was therefore challenging the adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “We are fixing it,” she said in her opening contribution to the session as she assumed a wider perspective of engagement as consisting of many communities, be it staff, students, surrounding populace, the region and beyond. It is also this wider perspective that allows her to evoke a larger group of stakeholders that impact on the university. Funders, donors, students, staff, governing councils and communities all impinge on the university. A responsive university has to take into account these stakeholders as it also responds to the changing environment. An environment is rapidly responding to technological disruptions, the question of funding sustainability for the university, decolonising the curriculum, improving students’ skill sets and employability.

Professor Lukhele-Olorunju added additional complexity to this when she began to expand upon the skills that will be needed in the coming years. Quoting from Business Tech Online (2021) she pointed out the skills that would be needed in the coming years.

According to this source, 149 million new jobs are required by 2025 to maintain this transformation. Software development, cloud and data roles and data analysis make up the bulk of these new jobs. However, it also requires basic business acumen and inter personal skills to succeed in this evolving world.

Turning to transformation, Lukhele-Olorunju points out that in 2010 and 2015, transformation conferences took place and the mergers were meant, in part, to bring about transformation. Whether the mergers achieved this is debatable even today. In contradistinction, the new universities that have been created after the mergers have been purposefully built around the notion of transformation. The University of Mpumalanga (UMP) was established in 2013 and is a hub of transformation. Its strategic plan places it firmly in support of the province’s socio-economic and political context embedded in embedded in bio-diversity conservation, wildlife, heritage and culture preservation and agriculture.

The ripple effect

For Professor Lukhele-Olorunju, it is all about the ripple effect. The university produces knowledge which it transfers to its communities. These communities see new ways of doing things and start using these new concepts which flow back into the university and, in turn, changes it. In the same way, the mission of the university must be driven by empowering policies—like the national Development Plan 2030, The African agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals—by adopting aspects of these which can best serve their community.

For her, it is imperative that re-imagining the university is not seen as the destruction of the university, but rather refashioning its core to deal with these new challenges. Universities must be in continual transformative reinvention. From the stakeholders and policies, change must continually spread outwards through the university and beyond into the community. Transformation is not a goal but a process.

“It is vitally important that this conversation is taking place at this exact moment in time”, argued Professor Salim Vally (right) who is the Director: Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg. Quoting Arundhati Roy, he notes that we have given ourselves a chance to rethink “the doomsday machine that we have built ourselves”. Within the context of Covid-19, higher education thinkers across the world have been thinking about what the pandemic means for the identity of the university and its purpose.

What are we good for?

Returning to Professor Chris Brink’s distinction between what are universities good at and what are they good for, Professor Vally touches on the heart of the matter. There is an ongoing tension between whether the South Africa university should respond to the needs of the marketplace or whether it should be configured to address the broader needs of society, like unemployment and poverty.

This question touches on the political economy of higher education. In particular, can corporate modelled universities even begin to address transformation, never mind the decolonisation of the university space? These institutions practise academic capitalism and understand academic work as a form of entrepreneurial activity. While this may be a global phenomenon, the attendant notions of rankings and competition strongly manifest in South Africa “and we see a shift from the public good to commodification”. Building community capacity for a better future is antithetical to the pursuit of capitalistic profits. This also gives rise to a blind faith in technology, “a kind of techno-utopianism”. This needs to be critiqued in case that the rising role of technology simply reproduces more inequality.

So, if we shouldn’t be so closely tied to business models, how can we rethink our scholarly partnership? Universities should be doing more with civil society in a collaborative fashion. Academic writing needs to move beyond a linear transmission of pre-conceived knowledge to communities via academic journals and needs to adopt a more dialogical creation of knowledge with the community. A socially responsible, critical and encompassing scholarship needs to emerge that values the inputs and creativity of the community. What this also means is that we need to rethink how to measure academic work that is done in examining and describing civil society attempts to ameliorate inequality.

In the concluding discussion, the underlying question again came to the fore. As Dr Green put it: “Why are we so concerned with rankings and competition when our focus should be on providing service to those most in need?” Professor Vally made the point that ranking organisations are businesses that make money by creating the criteria that constitute ranking. And so, of course, ranking is precisely opposed to notion of service and the public good. In closing, Professor Lukhele-Olorunju put it succinctly: “I think that competition is good, but in our case, we should be competing with each other to see how best we can help each other”.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.