The developmental university is crucial but is not without risks

15-10-21 USAf 0 comment

Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) conference on The Engaged University was important because of all the people it brought together in South Africa, and beyond its borders. It was also important because of its crucial theme, which is central not only to higher education concerns but also to our global challenges.

So said Tristan McCowan (right), Professor of International Education at the Institute of Education, University College London and one of the international speakers at the conference held virtually from 6 to 8 October. It was the largest higher education conference in South Africa’s history, with more than 140 speakers and just under 2000 delegates in attendance.

“Your debates in this event are focused mainly on South Africa, but South Africa is an important player in shaping global higher education. So other contexts are also looking with interest at what you’re doing,” said McCowan.

He said he would be addressing the question that the USAf CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa, had raised in his opening address: What is the knowledge project, and what kind of university are we forging?

McCowan’s presentation was about the developmental university, which he said is like the democratic civic institution another international speaker at the conference, Professor Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania, had spoken about. McCowan said many South African institutions are examples of developmental universities but did not elaborate further.

Instead, he focused on the limits of the developmental university. “I’m not doing this with a view to undermining it or questioning its importance; it’s absolutely crucial that we have the developmental university,” he said. On the contrary, he wanted to reflect on considerations such as contemporary student movements placing new demands on universities. And these movements are not foreign to South Africa, which has been pivotal in some of them. “So, I am not throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

He cited the student movement at the University of Córdoba in Argentina in 1918 as one example that had led to a significant democratisation of a public university in terms of student access and democratic governance. It had also placed universities’ third mission of outreach or community engagement on a par, at least theoretically, with teaching and research; and a much greater openness to society’s problems and creating a more just society.

Key qualities of a developmental university

According Professor McCowan, developmental universities have these characteristics:

  • service to society as a primary mission;
  • an egalitarian orientation to the point of being pro-poor; and
  • they include non-academic impact, not exclusively, but are concerned not only with contributing to academic debates but in positively influencing society in a practical sense.

He said he was involved academically with the University for Development Studies in Ghana, where “all undergraduate students, regardless of their course, undertake a third trimester placement.

“They spend time in a local community, supporting that community in development projects but also learning through that experience in a two-way interaction, and intercultural dialogue, as very often students are of a different ethnic and linguistic group from their host communities,” he said.

He said he did not want to dwell on the challenges of maintaining this model but noted that they included the need for public funding for this experience. And mission creep could necessitate the need to revert to being the conventional academic institutions that universities were originally intended to be.

Benefits and risks of developmental universities

McCowan said the obvious benefits of developmental universities are that they take their responsibility to society seriously; are open to diverse groups; make a contribution in response to public funding and have committed staff and students needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as others of social justice and equality.

One risk is that the institutions lack insulation, that is, some distinctive space that has value. “I’m sure all of us who have studied in universities or worked in them would agree,” he said, the value of that space lies in “creating conditions that are in some ways, at least, different from those in our everyday lives outside the universities; conditions that might be for particular kinds of dialogue, meeting new kinds of people, a dialogue across diversity,” he said.

The question of impact

In the UK, “impact” has become a buzzword. Up to 25% of funds for research given directly to institutions now go to impact, that is, to produce case studies from universities. And Times Higher Education has added impact rankings based on some of the SDGs, an initiative that McCowan supports.

But impact has its perils, particularly if it is the only thing universities are concerned about. These problems include:

  • the idea of a non-linear cause-and-effect relationship between what develops within the university,
    and expands outside of it;
  • long-term impact is unpredictable;
  • the difficulty of measurement results in a tendency to focus on what is easily measured, referred to in education assessments as “the tail wagging the dog”; and
  • instrumentalisation, or the instrumental value of universities Bawa had referred to in his address: “It would be dangerous to shape instrumentalist imaginations of our universities”.

Professor McCowan is Principal Investigator for the Global Challenges Research Fund project, Transforming Universities for a Changing Climate. He illustrated the problems of assessing impact by using the example of staff and students campaigning about climate change. It is hard to research and measure, but has an impact that needs to be considered.

“There are two challenges that come from contemporary movements, which the developmental university also needs to be aware of: the intrinsic nature of the university, and post-development concerns,” said Professor McCowan. These post-development concerns, he said, include institutionalisation or challenges of governance structures and the colonial nature of universities, an area in which South Africa has been a key player.


Professor Chris Nhlapo, Vice-Chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, chaired part two of the international plenary session in which McCowan participated. Nhlapo posed three questions, some originating from delegates:

Question 1: “We had a similar challenge in South Africa with free education not so long ago. What is your comment about education as a human right and as universal entitlement? And how do we best deal with that, as a system?”

The response: “I do see higher education as a right, but as part of a right to lifelong education. We need to think of higher education as part of a portfolio of different educational options that should be available to adults of different types, some options of which might be workplace, some cultural. “I don’t think it’s essential for every person in society to go to what we might think of as a conventional university. But that option needs to be open to every person in society. And I think there should not be financial barriers, and we need to think about all educational options being available to more people in society. So, we can have a vibrant educational environment in which all people can engage.”

Question 2: Can you talk more about institutionalisation?

The response: “Institutionalisation is about the structures of the university. The challenge is to decide what traditional aspects of the structure we want to keep, and what we might want to transform. It is very difficult, because we are so embedded in the fundamentalist assumptions of educational practices and educational structures. And the kinds of things we’re looking at are how universities structure curricula – the courses, the qualifications – how they are governed, and the distinctions between those who teach and those who learn.

“The challenge is: If we want to create a more just institution that can address the civilisational challenges facing us (e.g. climate change) which are rooted in the fabric of the kinds of societies we have, is it enough to change the people in the universities, to change our reading lists, and so forth, or do we need something more fundamental?”

Question 3: “You talk about rankings based on impact. You said they are flawed, particularly regarding the assumption of linearity, and not taking nuances into account. Is it then worth ranking universities based on impact?”

The response: “International rankings aren’t going anywhere soon. They are with us for the foreseeable future. So, my view is that it’s better to have new rankings than our heads in the sand.

“It’s very hard for any kind of ranking to achieve all that we’d like to achieve, because ultimately they foster competition, not cooperation, and it’s quite hard to provide neat comparisons between institutions, even in the same country, let alone internationally without being quite reductive in terms of the things that we’re measuring.

“One of the projects I’ve been involved with, with colleagues from South Africa, in fact, and other countries, was around higher education and the public good, and whether it would be possible to generate indicators of public good that could be comparable across continents. The conclusion that we reached, together with many stakeholders, is that we need to have some kind of dashboard approach, where we can include some qualitative internationally comparable indicators.

“So, I do think it’s a good thing that we have the impact ranking. It’s not perfect, but I applaud their attempt to do something a bit different. We need to push it further. We need to create other kinds of rankings and indicators that really challenge some fundamental assumptions. And that can keep us moving in the right direction.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.