Former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln in England, and one of the contributing authors to the book The Responsive University and the Crisis in South Africa, Professor Mary Stuart, says universities stand to maintain relevance if they evaluate and work with the needs of communities in which they exist.
Speaking in response to Professor Chris Brink’s inputs at the launch of his book during Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference, Professor Stuart (right) said in the United Kingdom, there is an ongoing debate about decolonisation, admitting that the country, to a certain degree, still operates within ambits of coloniality.
She said the UK was far from having societal uniformity, arguing that in the last 70 years, the country was showing signs of inequality that citizens had not witnessed before. “There is a big debate about what is being called the levelling up,” she said, adding that the government does not seem to have a clue what that entails. “But there is a feeling that the levels of inequality in different parts of the country are very significant,” she said.
While on that point she referred to the location of her university, Lincoln. She said it was a post-industrial area, very rural, agricultural, and a large coastal strip of deprivation [obviously] relative to the UK standards.
The story of the University of Lincoln is testament to community leaders, businesspeople and civilians coming together to build something that would benefit the community. Having lost out in the state competition for a university, the Lincoln community established the university themselves. “The first building that they put up was actually on derelict railway sidings and contaminated land. They had to regenerate and clean up the land to establish the first university,” she said, adding that the university was built with money from the local authorities.
“That was 20 years ago, but because our founders are still in many cases, alive, they keep reminding us of our responsibilities to our community — and that is hugely important,” she said.
Professor Stuart commended USAf for holding a conference that unpacked the many topics of engagement. “I think you are world-leading in this context… I do not think Universities UK has thought that far. And the transformation, as I assure you, is extremely needed in the UK, as well.”
She went on to talk about the Civic University Network, which was established in 2018 by the Civic University Commission in the UK, which had found that universities across the UK were doing a lot of engagement and working with communities. “But along the line of Chris’ example, engagement is a stage that you need to get to full responsiveness.
“We found that there were very few universities that had a clear strategic approach to that work. This is where things like making sure that there were career paths for people who are involved in the work started — where senior members of the university are involved in schools, working with the local government to identify local needs, working with NGOs, businesses, and indeed engaging in joint activities for the mutual benefit of the university and the area.”
As a result of that initiative, they have now formulated a Civic University Network that has over a hundred universities signed up. The network was founded on several principles. One is that universities should work with their local partners to set up a civic agreement. That agreement prescribed how universities will work locally; what they are going to do together and how they will review agreements.
“Those are some of the examples of what we are trying out in our part of the world. I think they are transferrable.” Professor Stuart said, fundamentally, it is about universities understanding their surrounds, its people, and their needs.
“If we do not do that as a sector, we will not be relevant to a changing world,” she warned her audience.
The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.