Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa (USAf), opened the 2nd Higher Education Conference by telling delegates that there had been much agonising over the conference theme: The Engaged University.
The event, which kicked off on Wednesday, 6 October, is the largest Higher Education conference that USAf is hosting in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE). Hosted virtually from the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus and research centre, the conference has attracted over 140 participants serving as speakers and chairs, and just under 2000 delegates.
Professor Bawa said the devastation wreaked by CoViD-19 has changed the world and stretched the inequality gaps to breaking point, raising the question of social justice across all societies. Higher Education institutions, he said, were not left untouched and had become symptomatic of these inequalities.
“Here in South Africa, these symptoms appeared in inequalities between students, and staff, inequalities between institutions because of the history of our system, as well as inequalities between the different sub-systems in our post school education and training sector.”
In her welcome address, Professor Sibongile Muthwa (right), USAf’s Chairperson and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University, endorsed Professor Bawa’s standpoint, saying: “More recently, there is a justifiable preoccupation with notions of social justice, equity, access and inclusion.
“We have been jolted into the grim reality of our miserably unequal and unjust world and the huge disparities that exist in the provision of quality higher education to students.
“The role that our universities could and should be playing in ameliorating these conditions has been questioned along with being more relevant to students, and communities,” she said.
Professor Bawa said these factors of inequality made it more complex to understand how to deal with the challenges of Covid-19. “The only way we were able to complete the academic year in 2020 was working together as a sector, with government, the Council of Higher Education, the research councils, the South African Union of Students and the business community – especially the mobile network operators.
“So, it was collaboration that brought about this big effort to complete the 2020 academic year,” he said, adding that while the mobile operators were not easy to work with, fruitful partnerships had been struck.
The USAf CEO hoped this seed of new collaboration and partnership building, which becomes central in building a higher education system, would sustain into the future.
Impact of CoViD-19
Regarding the theme The Engaged University, Professor Bawa (left) said the impact of the pandemic was an important theme to consider.
“The universities all faced sharp, short term financial crises. The quality of education delivered and received remains an open question and the impact of CoViD-19 on staff and students has yet to be fully determined – though we are aware of the extent to which mental health challenges have risen to the fore.
“Sadly, 100s of people in the communities of our universities fell to the virus and we’re still the counting the cost of this. But we decided not to focus only on the impact of the pandemic on the universities, even though it pushed the system to the edge of collapse.
Professor Bawa said the short-term financial crises turned out to be symptomatic of deep concerns over the long-term sustainability of the system, due to:
- The mental health issues
- Device, data and connectivity deficits that were always there and still are
- The preparedness of universities to offer decent online courses, something they were experimenting with.
Was the pandemic the great disruption?
He said, however, that it was a risk to assume that the pandemic was THE great disruption. “It was indeed a disruption, but so were the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall student mobilisations of 2015 and 2017; and so too are the annual challenges we face at the universities primarily over issues of financial aid.
“Most importantly, we must understand that we are in the throes of the great disruption of this technology moment that we are in, which came to the fore during CoViD-19. Of course, there is also the great disruption of global warming and climate change, and these bring to the fore the fact that we need to revisit the place of universities in our societies.”
Professor Muthwa echoed this: “This conference finds us slowly re-emerging into a global higher education context that is more profoundly unequal than ever before.
“The role, value and purpose of universities is under intense scrutiny where we are asking what is the role of the university in society? Who owns the university? How legitimate is it? How must we signal that legitimacy? Who are its stakeholders? What is the nature and span of our engagement as a university? In short, what is the university for?”
Defending institutions of higher education
In the same vein, Professor Bawa said two experiences in the recent past had stood out for him: “In October, 2016, when 18 of our universities had been brought to a standstill by student mobilisations, and the other six were on the verge of closure, questions were being raised about whether we should shut down the system and only reopen once stability had been achieved.
“At this time when the system was at a genuine inflection point I was staggered by the fact that there was no defence of the higher education system. Not from government, industry and business, communities, the not-for-profit sector, from the students, the alumni… I wondered why there was no defence of these universities that are publicly owned social institutions.
“As Professor Muthwa said, it raised the question: who owns these institutions?
“The second experience was the call from student leaders in 2016 for the collapsing of our universities and their re-establishment as decolonised institutions.This was the flicking of a switch wake-up call. We had witnessed the irrevocable breakdown of the social compact that grew out of the transition in 1994… and out of the national commission on higher education — the process that led to the White Paper 3 of 1997, on the transformation of higher education, and the Higher Education Act of 1997.
“Had we just witnessed a catastrophic collapse of a powerful imagination that led to the transition in 1994? Has higher education been complicit in that failure? Was our stable democracy a façade of having not produced the egalitarian society we’d all hoped for and imagined?
And, what was the role of the universities in that catastrophic collapse?”
Who owns our universities?
The key question, Professor Bawa said, was: Who owns our universities?
“Why is the social ownership of our universities so weak? This conference addresses one end of that question: What are the engines that address the issue of social ownership of our Higher Education system?” At the heart of this, he said, is the nature of the knowledge project of both the Higher Education system and the national system of innovation.
“What is the knowledge project and what is our understanding of the resonance of that with the various publics of our universities? To what extent does that knowledge project of our national system of innovation resonate with the publics of our universities?
“It would be dangerous to shape instrumentalist imaginations of our universities. That is not something I advocate. Yet, any imagination of our Higher Education system and of the knowledge project must rigorously address the grand challenges we face as a society, as humanity – at the human/earth nexus and our suffocating planet,” Professor Bawa said.
He said that the quesiton remained: has enough time been spent on addressing what that knowledge project should be, and how can it be shaped outside of understanding the nexus between universities and society?
The conference, he said, arrived at this theme from many angles shaped by USAf’s five strategy groups, Teaching and Learning; Research and Innovation; Transformation; Funding and the World of Work. These strategy groups focused on work currently being undertaken, and work that is foreseen as we head to 2022.
Professor Muthwa said it was “excitingly provocative” that USAf and its collaborators had the foresight and courage to probe the essence of The Engaged University as a theme.
“The question opens a space to reignite debates and engagements across a variety of disciplines and constituencies.
“It moves us towards the kind of relevance and impact we all seek, but that remains elusive within the ideological confines and limitations of a traditional university with which we collude as we strain to subvert,” she said.
The three days (6 to 8 October) would be a reflection for delegates on how to strengthen connectivity and overcome limitations of location and distance in ways and “with magnitude we didn’t consider possible before the pandemic”.
She added that it was necessary to engage deeply with the embedded-ness and convergence of the university with society “through the prism of our scholarly missions as a university”.
In conclusion, the USAf Chair said: “I hope this conference will help disrupt our traditional frames of being and doing as the academy while we engage courageously to open new avenues of fresh lines of thinking on The Engaged University across disciplines.”
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa