National Higher Education Conference : Reinventing South Africa's Universities of the Future

It is all about the kind of university we want for the kind of society we want

The presentation by Professor Peter Maassen, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oslo, on the role of universities in society provided an international perspective that offered new ways of thinking about what turned out to be a controversial subject.

Prof Maassen was ideally placed to present the plenary titled Profiles, Partnerships, Problem-solving: reconfiguring university-society relationships in the 21st century. When he said in his opening comments: "The South African science of higher education is not isolated; it is international globally linked. Any attempt to relook, to rethink higher education has to be embedded in the global international context," he said so with authority and insight.

Also the Deputy Head/Research Coordinator at the Department for Educational Research in the University of Oslo's Faculty of Education, his areas of academic specialisation include the economic role of higher education institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has ties with South Africa through his research involvement with the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, known as CREST, at Stellenbosch University.

More than that, he was the lead researcher on The Place of Universities in Society, a study commissioned by the Körber Foundation. It was presented at the Global University Leaders Council Hamburg in June 2019 when about 50 university leaders from around the world met to formulate guidelines for the future development of the interaction between universities and society.

The study looked at six countries, namely Canada (Ontario), Chile, Germany, Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom (England). In each country they selected five to six different types of universities: from research-intensive ones to those of applied sciences. In South Africa they chose the University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape, Stellenbosch University, University of Pretoria, University of the Witwatersrand and the Tshwane University of Technology.

Prof Maassen and his team gathered qualitative data from websites, university documents, academic studies and also conducted a survey which had a 60% response rate, in which they asked universities how they develop, interpret, support, organise and internally govern their role with society.

Prof Peter Maassen
Prof Peter Maassen says that the new demands from society imply that universities are expected to become more strategic, proactive and explicit in the development, operationalisation, implementation and presentation of their relationships with society - in other words, the third mission.

The study found that "the engagement strategies and activities of South African universities are well-developed in comparison to the situation in other countries in the study, and are highly important for the involved communities".

Other findings related to South African universities include:

  • "Educational initiatives include reaching out to vulnerable and under-represented student groups";
  • "The use of digital technologies in education is of importance, but has not developed as far yet as in some of the other countries in the study";
  • "Knowledge Transfer (KT) to industry takes place especially around the large engineering, natural sciences and medical faculties of the research-intensive universities in the larger urban areas";
  • "The universities of technology, such as TUT, play an important role in KT to the private sector";
  • "In rural areas the links between universities and industry have been developed relatively poorly until now";
  • "Key areas in the KT and community engagement strategies and activities of the universities in the study are health care, including the improvement of health care services in informal community settings".

Overall, the study focused on each country's national context and the ideological standing of the role of higher education in society. It found a great variety among countries.

In some, the government has withdrawn from providing public services and expected universities and other providers to step in and take over its role. In other countries, the government is still responsible for public services but tries to develop partnerships with universities to offer these services.

Prof Maassen refers to the third mission of universities in the report: "It can be argued that universities are currently facing again fundamental discussions about what they are expected to accomplish for society .... The new demands from society imply that universities are expected to become more strategic, proactive and explicit in the development, operationalisation, implementation and presentation of their relationships with society, in other words, their 'third mission'.

"This third mission has emerged over the last decades as an equally important part of the universities' social contract or pact with society as the primary two missions of education and research. The third mission has replaced the traditional, rather vague notion of university services to society."

Prof Maassen apologised for the use of the term "third mission," explaining that this was the most used term globally in reference the university-society relationship.

This apparent bashfulness was inexplicable until the question-and-answer session at the end of his presentation and the final conference plenary the following day.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said in the Q&A part of the session that he found Maassen's formulation very interesting in terms of the third mission "because one way of balkanising the third mission is precisely to establish a third mission because it's never going to compete with teaching and research in the normal construction".

He said they had been thinking about the third mission "on the basis of how it intersects with the first and second missions, so that it's kind of integrated, and then it's funded through the core funding".

Prof Maassen then responded by saying a Canadian colleague had been surprised that a German-funded report had used the term "third mission" because in Germany they say it doesn't exist whereas in Canada "it is very clearly recognised as a separate kind of mission of the university as a tower of Babel situation".

"Without going into the term 'third mission' or presenting it as something else or an add-on, how can you lift knowledge-sharing with society in such a way that you also get something back in your partnership?" asked Maassen.

Professor Jan Botha from CREST said about 20 years ago Stellenbosch University had proposed a new mission statement in which community engagement was presented equally with one third of resources and one third of academics' time spent on each mission. Senate had shot down the idea. "How do you define and distinguish if you want it equal?" asked Botha. "And if you don't do that, you're back to business as usual; you just carry on doing the stuff you've been doing the previous 900 years", to which Maassen retorted that "business as usual is no longer acceptable for society" although not enough universities realised that.

It is uncertain if Professor Clint Brink attended Maassen's plenary but he shouted down the notion of the third mission in his own talk the next day, on Beyond Engagement: the idea of Responsiveness.

Professor Jan Botha
Professor Jan Botha, Professor at Stellenbosch University's Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST).

Prof Brink, Emeritus Vice-Chancellor at the University of Newcastle in the UK, and now a global higher education consultant, said the linear model of knowledge production is no longer sufficient. "We need a responsive model of knowledge production which begins and ends with society," he said, showing a graphic in which societal challenges and engagement as well as response and research were all interlinked (see below).

response and research interlinked...

Other key points that Prof Maassen raised in his talk included the contribution of universities to the economy. He used a quote referring to Stanford University, which he said was mindboggling but not an exception: "Stanford entrepreneurs have generated world revenues of $2.7 trillion annually and have created 5.4 million jobs since the 1930s".

He said policy-makers do not have a comprehensive understanding of the role of universities in society.

While the World Economic Forum's sustainable development goals were regarded by some as a solution to social engagement, a close reading of them revealed "very little direct attention and interest in the universities' role in sustainable development".

Other thought-provoking statements and questions Prof Maassen raised include:

  • "There are significant intra-country, inter-country and inter-university differences when it comes to how universities see and develop and analyse and operationalise and support their relationship with society";
  • "There is not one dominant development in the relationship of universities to society'' ;
  • "In education we see many innovations but they're pedagogical and digital. There are very few substantive academic innovations linking new study programmes or tracks to grand challenges or wicked problems ('wicked' in the sense of social concerns that are difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve)";
  • "You cannot de-connect academic freedom any more from academic responsibility";
  • "Universities are very ineffective in communicating their major contributions to society";
  • "The legal situation in Germany doesn't allow universities to develop this kind of partnership (with society) within their own university legal setting";
  • "What about the impact of university-society relations on the university? Why is there only an interest on the impact on society?";
  • "In SA there are many, extremely positive examples (of social engagement) but hardly anyone knows about it outside of those who are directly affected";
  • "How do you go from project-based transfer activities that are funded in a sustainable way to sustainable long-term mutual partnerships?";
  • "Very few universities have a clear and proactive approach to stimulating, supporting and rewarding social engagement activities"; and
  • "It's really a puzzle why a 16-year-old secondary education pupil (Greta Thunberg from Sweden) is leading the global movement to put climate change centrally on all political agendas. Why haven't universities in their own study programmes made this issue on sustainability central? "

    His favourite line, which he repeated twice, was: "What kind of university do we want for what kind of society?" This made for a meaningful outtake for conference delegates.


    Written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities SA


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