Deliberations and debates that took place at Universities South Africa’s recent 2nd Higher Education Conference have left universities in no doubt over what it is they need to do to achieve urgent change and transformation. This is how Professor Sibongile Muthwa, Chairperson of Universities SA (USAf) and the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University summed up The Engaged University conference that ended on 8 October.
Professor Muthwa said while listening to the various speakers at the event she had observed a tacit but powerful acknowledgement that universities had reached a turning point where their relevance, impact and value to society was being questioned.
“The message has been clear. It is time to respond and to regroup”, Muthwa (above) said in wrapping up the event on the third and last day of the event. “If one has listened carefully, most of our colleagues have confirmed the centrality and embeddedness of the university in national socio-economic and political transformation and development. Our own Minister confirmed this in his wide-ranging address on Wednesday. This conference has also affirmed that people have and are taking the notion of the engaged, responsive university to heart. This a growing global preoccupation among scholars and practitioners.”
Professor Muthwa urged universities to build on this impetus.
Said the USAf Chair: “It is therefore my sincere exhortation that this wonderful network, cemented in the last three days, will be further enriched and extended to provide a very solid platform for the re-imagination of the knowledge project towards a much more expansive, deliberative and convergent enterprise that we’ve all alluded to and that we all hope for.”
USAf’s Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ahmed Bawa (left), agreed that it had been a wonderful two and a half days that left delegates with plenty of learnings. “What we heard from Ira Harkavy and Hilligje van’t Land — the international perspectives that were presented to us –, is that higher education challenges are not challenges unique to South Africa. They are also evident in the global higher education enterprise.”
Recapping on the themes that had stood out for him, Professor Bawa mentioned:
- The upending of our system from 2015 with FeeMustFall, RhodesMustFall protests and now CoViD. He said what were identified as disruptive agents alongside the new technology moment and its implications – really presented an opportunity for a re-think and re-imagination of this system.
- The need to evolve the knowledge project of our system, with emphasis on learning at the theory-practice-nexus. “We need to bring together theory and practice and get students to be involved in that nexus,” Professor Bawa said.
- The need to strengthen collaborations within and outside the system, that is really at the heart of building the social ownership of universities.
- The idea of converging knowledge domains, the curricular, bringing together the sciences and the humanities. “We need to expose our students to both domains and other domains of knowledge and bring them together into an interesting mix.”
- The issue around flexible life-long learning – particularly with the use of technology, giving access to non-traditional students – was also critical.
- Understanding the location of universities in the broad political economy is critical. Being cognizant that the broad political economy might undermine the powerful ideas that are emerging. In some ways, universities might want to nip themselves out of what we’ve conceptualised as the dominant models of production.
- Building onto The Engaged University, the idea of The Responsive University. There was clear consensus that it is not enough to be engaged. It is as important to be responsive to the grand challenges of our society, said the USAf CEO.
- The need to fund engagement for its ongoing sustainability, coupled with the need to move away from the perils of linking engagement with soft / donor money – noting the threat that that poses, of curtailing the ongoing project of engagement.
- The need for the system to identify opportunities presented by the coming together of the DHET and DSI under one ministry and to address those new opportunities.
- The challenge presented by the Minister, of us locating the higher education system firmly within the national system of innovation within the context of New Decadal Plan.
- Understanding the challenge of the research- innovation chasm and the implications thereof. The need for universities to understand how they, the science councils, the business community and community stakeholders, can all work together in addressing this issue.
- Concerns about the complete absence of the provincial and local government structures in the knowledge processes that universities are engaged in. This is about getting universities to become much more involved in addressing the challenges facing local government.
He said the next step would be to make sense of these inputs. “Our major challenge is now to really work through what we gathered in the strategy groups and to take these issues into our communities of practice and into our universities – to create new projects.”
Even universities have capacity to change
Professor Muthwa said even though universities are the most conservative entities — intractable when it comes to change or self-reflection, “the simple fact of their longevity speaks to their capacity and potential to change – quite radically at times. Our world has passed through hugely disruptive wars, pandemics and all manner of revolutions. Sometimes, as a university system, we have adapted to the disruptions, and sometimes we have led these disruptions, like the pandemic has shown. But we have also done the work and we have prevailed.”
Muthwa said she looked forward “with great anticipation, to hearing of initiatives being rolled out hereafter to promote the ideal and the praxis of the engaged and responsive university.”
The USAf Chair said it would be remiss of her if she did not publicly thank what she called the USAf A-Team, and staff at the Council on Higher Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training for their support in making the 2nd Higher Education Conference a success. “I single out Dr Linda Meyer [Director: Operations and Sector Support] who spent months totally consumed by preparations for this conference.
“I sincerely thank my colleagues, the Chairs of the USAf strategy groups as well as the members of the Strategy Groups for the role they have played in leading the plans and the honing of the conference themes. Because of careful and detailed planning in the background, the conference has been a great success.”
She also paid tribute to peers and friends from the global higher education community and from all the sectors of society for attending. Alongside them she recognised student delegates who had participated in the conference.
On behalf of the 26 Vice-Chancellors, Professor Muthwa thanked everyone involved “for a job superbly done… I thank you all.”
The writer, ‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.