Universities in South Africa retain outdated, often discriminatory cultures, which are exclusionary, so there must be a concerted effort to fight discrimination with a more significant commitment to social justice, said Professor Sibongile Muthwa, the Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University and head of the Universities South Africa (USAf).
“In many ways, we would like to see universities make a greater commitment to inclusion to fighting discrimination and be strongly committed to social justice,” she said.
Speaking ahead of next month’s major indaba on current pressing problems and challenges for the tertiary sector, hosted jointly by USAf and the Council on Higher Education, she said the conference will focus on critical debate around the knowledge project, which remains in need of transformation.
“Underpinned by issues such as, Fees Must Fall, for example, the issues of decolonising language will be interrogated in terms of what we choose to teach, how we choose to teach it, and who teaches it,” Muthwa said.
The second higher education conference takes place under the theme The Engaged University seeks to reach out more and more to communities.
Usaf, whose membership is made of 26 universities’ heads covering the length and breadth of the country, have been challenged to ensure that their institutions assume their roles delivering on a public good and making their universities live up to their billing as national treasures.
Muthwa said, by the end of the conference, “it would be wonderful for us to have interrogated the future world of work.”
“How is the future world of work, what does it need to look like, and what kind of student are we turning out? Because we're training students for some of the positions that don't yet exist. So, our commitment is to make sure that the students have got disciplinary depth in their own field, but also that they've got adaptive expertise, so that, they're able to adapt to the environment that we don't know yet. These are some of the issues that we hope the conference will engage,” she said.
Muthwa said there was a greater need to understand the needs of the students better. “The student that we have now is different from the student that we had 20 years ago 25 years ago, and we find that the universities have not changed enough to take on board and to accommodate the diversity of knowledge and backgrounds of students that come into our universities.”
As a result, the key themes related to addressing the funding crisis, research impact, teaching and learning, transformation, and equipping both the sector and students with tools for the world of work.
“I also hope at the end of the conference, the universities would have worked through these discussions, and the participants to bridge to the social distance between their work and the work of the communities in which they live,” she said.
“To what extent can universities use the experiences of societies around them actually to transform the knowledge project. So for me, it's both at a practical level, but also at a level of the transformation of our approaches to the formulation of knowledge,” she added.
Putting scholarship at the heart of the university mission, by ensuring that it is as important as learning and teaching, and research and innovation, will also be critical during debate on the engaged university, she said.
Muthwa said the university has three missions: scholarly missions, through which work is deployed, learning and teaching, research and innovation, and engagement.
“And we have had a situation, and it's well-documented in the scholarly space that the two missions of learning and teaching, and research and innovation, have always enjoyed importance, which is much more important than the scholarship of engagement. So that, for me, is one of the challenges that I think the conference will obviously have to pay attention to. How do we make sure that the scholarship of engagement is foregrounded as a mission, that is, as important as learning and teaching, and research and innovation,” she said.
Next month’s higher education indaba by Universities South Africa (USAf) and the Council on Higher Education at the Africa Future Centre, University of Pretoria, comes at a crucial time with funding a significant challenge brought on by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The role of the university has never been under greater scrutiny with serious questions around ownership, improving its legitimacy, and answering questions about its future under key themes, will spark robust debate.
She said, academic Professor Chris Brink had framed some of the debate with two key questions: What are universities good at, which is the question of excellence, and what are the universities good for?
Muthwa said, Covid-19 has shown that the higher education sector could not stand aside with purely a research focus, but must reflect a commitment to responding to challenges that are facing society.
“Universities have to be committed to using the intellectual capacity to address the challenges of society. Of course, I need to add that universities are not the government. They've got a different mandate, and they are not civil society organizations, they are universities. Universities can only become engaged through their attitude to how their asset base, their scholarly asset base, and intellectual asset base, addresses the commanding challenges that face society. That is what we actually are trying to do with this conference,” she said.
By the end of the conference, she said, they hoped that universities will commit to a new to working collaboratively, as a sector.
“Because what we have seen is that universities are limited in terms of dealing with their mandates of engagement, in particular, if they don't work in collaboration. I also hope that, at the end of the conference, we will be more committed, we will make renewed commitments around the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to learning and teaching, to research and innovation, as well as to engagement.
“Maybe they relate to poverty, inequality, climate change, urbanisation, GBV: none of them, whatsoever, can be resolved by one domain of science. The universities need to work together as the scholars committed to the interdisciplinary approach,” Muthwa said.
In spite of the adverse effects of Covid-19, she said, the pandemic had left one optimistic, purely based on how the health sciences, research, and interventions have set new records in terms of speed of tackling issues together. “The sciences and the humanities are in stronger conversations with each other, and transdisciplinary work and collaborations are advancing across the local and global higher education sector.”