Every person in higher education should read two books, both central to the deliberations at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) recent conference on The Engaged University.
The one is Chrissie Boughey and Sioux McKenna’s Understanding Higher Education: Alternative Perspectives (African Minds, 2021). The other is Chris Brink’s The Soul of a University: Why Excellence is Not Enough (Policy Press, 2018).
Those were the recommendations of Dr Sizwe Mabizela, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University who was speaking in his capacity as (outgoing) Chairperson of USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG). He was presenting feedback from the TLSG breakaway sessions during the closing plenary of the 2nd Universities South Africa (USAf) Higher Education Conference which was conducted in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from 6 to 8 October.
During The Engaged University conference, the TLSG had held three breakaway sessions on the following sub-themes:
• The Engaged University and Teaching and Learning, Decolonisation and Scholarship;
• Teaching and Learning at the Theory-Praxis Nexus; and
• Community Engagement.
Dr Mabizela (above) said the discussions had been “rich, thought provoking and insightful”. Although summarising the sessions would not do them justice, he said they had revealed five recurring themes:
- Our universities should affirm their rootedness in Africa as African universities and not as universities in Africa. This rootedness should not just be contained in vision and mission statements but be reflected in the everyday interaction of staff, students and communities. It must also be reflected in the university’s orientation in respect of teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement.
- Public universities exist to serve the public good.
- Universities must deeply embed themselves in their society, not as an act of charity but as the recognition of our common humanity and our shared destiny.
- Universities must be responsive to the needs of our society, and they need to be responsive to their intrinsic capability expanding citizen-building role of higher education. This requires constant engagement with, and reflection on research; daily interaction with national and institutional policies; a reflective research-driven understanding of curriculum development delivery and pedagogical practice and, ultimately, responsive engagement with the aspirations and needs of students in the learning environment.
- Higher education should aim to produce graduates who are critical, ethically engaged, democratic and committed to the common good. Such graduates must be agents of social change in societal transformation; individuals who would not be content to see our society and the world as it is, but who can imagine a better society and a better world and can work with courage and conviction for the realization of such a society and such a world. Such graduates must be committed to justice, environmental justice and human rights.
Focus on the curriculum
Dr Mabizela said the discussions had focused a lot on the curriculum, which was highlighted as a change factor, a wicked problem but also a neglected opportunity. Delegates had noted the curriculum as what counts as valid knowledge, shaped by interlocking factors, the most central of which was social context. It was critical to consider what underlines curriculum choices.
“We were cautioned about conflating, two different but related notions,” Dr Mabizela went on to report. On the one hand was the academic curriculum, in terms of knowledge, the grammar of knowledge and what is taught in the formal space. On the other, he mentioned the institutional curriculum, which is the knowledge encoded in the beliefs, values and behaviours embedded in institutional life. “These are not the same, and, changing one does not necessarily mean that you are also changing the other,” said Mabizela.
Delegates in the TLSG sessions had also pointed out that curriculum reviews need to be explicit about the generality of knowledge and power. “We must interrogate whose interest dominates. This implies embracing a pedagogy that has due regard for how learning takes place, who the learner is and what there is to know.” The gathering had said the curriculum must help students make sense of the grammar of various disciplines and democratic pedagogy so that there is a transparent relationship between the academic and the student that allows for full recognition of the full being of the student.
Another aspect strongly championed was greater involvement of students in curricula design. “Some of the initiatives presented in the session reflect how powerful that contribution can be, and, in the context of curriculum development and renewal, using practice as reflective anchor speaks to putting emphasis on the interpretation of curriculum as experience — in addition to the content activities and outcomes. Such an interpretation involves engaging and reflecting on practical activities that enrich the experience of both students and academics.”
4IR, professional bodies and partnerships
The TLSG Chair reiterated the need for graduates that are critical thinkers and who can articulate themselves. So, the fourth industrial revolution had also yielded a very rich discussion. “What must be recognised is that technology is just a tool — data and information the fuel for development. The post-school system must be more agile and shift from disciplinary-focused programmes to catering for a more holistic and broader range of abilities required for success at work.”
Dr Mazibela said they had also spoken about how universities need to work with professional and statutory bodies which play a significant role in the education and preparation of graduates who pursue qualifications oriented towards the profession. The TLSG had underlined the need for universities to engage with professional bodies in such a way that the curricula that are intended for the education and preparation of graduates are regularly revised and updated to incorporate the latest developments in the profession.
Such engagement and strong collaboration and cooperation between universities and professional bodies would ensure better alignment between knowledge that underpins the profession and the competencies and skills that are required by the profession, and that properly align with knowledge, skills and competencies that are developed by universities. “In this way, the expectations of both graduates, employers and our society will be better served,” the TLSG Chair noted.
To underline the critical importance of partnerships between universities and professional bodies, Dr Mabizela cited the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) which had categorically stated that Accounting, as a profession, was dependent on universities for a formal competency base of academic education. While that was the starting point towards becoming a chartered accountant, SAICA also recognised schools as a pipeline for future accounting students – hence the work that SAICA was also doing with the Department of Basic Education, particularly in mathematics.
Dr Mabizela said the delegates had made the point that universities existed for the public good and must engage graduates in ways that transcend disciplines and promotes responsible citizenship. This spoke to the point of going beyond producing skilled and competent graduates but people who can lead, who can see problems and find new ways to solve old problems. Delegates had also made the point that universities’ primary role is not to produce graduates who are work-ready but to produce young people for the future – who are equipped to solve problems that are not even known yet and who can deal with complexity and uncertainty.
Noting that most citizens still lived in abject poverty, itself a consequence of rising inequality, a need was also pointed out, to understand the obligation of disciplines, including philosophy, to drive decolonisation. Speakers had constantly reinforced the view that The Engaged University is committed to direct interaction with its constituent communities through a mutually beneficial exchange, exploration and application of knowledge, application of expertise and information.
“Community engagement is then focused on the co-creation of knowledge by a range of people in a wider ecosystem with the university as a core agent. This more inclusive knowledge generation is transdisciplinary and incorporates an intrinsic respect for the expertise and experience of everyone, including those outside of the academy. It dismantles the hierarchies of how knowledge is created and milled beyond the processes in the classrooms. The content that is embedded must conscientise the students to work on issues that matter to them.”
In conclusion, Dr Mabizela said the books he had recommended must be read by any person in higher education, to delve deeper into the issues and principles deliberated upon at the conference. He also expressed his deepest gratitude to all individuals who had either chaired the TLSG sessions or shared thought leadership on these reflective platforms.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.