Change the world


The notion of the engaged university is far removed from its historical definitional identity. 

The university was, by and large, about teaching, learning and research and then, always adrift, was community engagement: a kind of socially distanced bequest of intellectual benevolence to the community in which it physically finds itself.

The engaged university is the focal point of an upcoming conference convened by Universities South Africa (USAf) and the Council on Higher Education.

It is scaffolded upon Professor Chris Brink’s detailed examination of the vital importance of the engaged university. Brink, the emeritus vice-chancellor of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, does so by asking two simple questions of the academy: “What are we good at?” and “What are we good for?”

While leadership can tell you at length what they are good at, answering what they are good for is much more complex.

It is this second question that the upcoming conference in October will seek to unpack and answer. In the light of a world riddled with structurally anchored social ills and inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has made answers to the question on what universities are good for even more urgent.

Hegemonic futility

COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of the edifice (both physically and economically) of universities globally as students left the buildings for virtual space and as profitable line items like internationalisation revenue evaporated instantaneously.

The months of the pandemic have been extended into a Sisyphean banality. Countries have constantly been ushered through the revolving door of lockdowns, and the mental health of academic staff and students has suffered in ways that cannot yet be grasped and calibrated.

In addition, and perhaps for the better, COVID-19 has stripped away the social veneer that attempts to normalise – or at least render invisible – pervasive sexism, racism, gender inequality and violence.

The pandemic, despite its massive negative impacts, has brought rays of optimism. In the health sciences, research and interventions have set new records in terms of speed.

Deep reflections on present geopolitical arrangements and global and local inequalities are retuning our frames for engaging with the planetary challenges facing us.

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.

How, then, do we construct a frame of reference that accommodates the nightmare that is COVID-19 together with the opportunities and potential that have inadvertently and purposefully arisen to address the pandemic?

How do we escape the hegemony that has crafted the purpose of the university and kept it doggedly and unwisely maintaining obsolescent ways of thinking about teaching and learning, knowledge production and research, and how to engage with society? How do we use this time and space with its cracks and fissures to re-imagine how universities do what they do?

Uniquely South African

It is, perhaps, no mistake that the conference is taking place in South Africa. The historical, socio-economic challenges that have beset the country are grave and ongoing.

But, by the same token, South Africans have an inordinate capacity at the grassroots to work together to achieve seemingly impossible goals grown out of bleak environments.

This is the context within which the engaged university emerges as a potential driving mechanism that seeks to establish greater trust between the university and the wider community.

The 26 universities that cover the length and breadth of the country are uniquely placed to guarantee their place as providers of this public good and to take their place as national treasures.

The university must be literally grounded in the challenges confronting the community, the region, the nation and beyond.

The engaged university is all about encouraging and liberating human agency. This is what the pandemic has shown us. None of the wider societal challenges can be solved without our ability to co-create, cooperate and collaborate.

What are universities good for? While not for a moment dismissing the importance of curious research, a cursory glance at our surrounding communities provides fertile ground for tackling and solving challenges.

From introducing gender equality and unemployment as areas of study into our curricula to fostering entrepreneurial skills within and outside the university space, we have to cooperate and collaborate to co-create with our communities.

We hope that the speakers and participants at the conference can move rapidly from articulation to action, to move beyond discussion and towards doing.

Dr Linda Meyer, the head of operations and sector support at USAf and conference convenor, fully supports this direction.

“The conference has been built out of the concerns of the strategy groups that exist as structures within USAf. Ideally, USAf would like to see an action plan arising from the eight sub-themes of the conference,” she said.

These themes are:

• What are the contextual realities of inclusive institutional cultures and the normative frames of an ‘engaged university’?

• To what extent is the long-term sustainability of our universities dependent on their reorientation as engaged institutions?

• To what extent would the knowledge project of universities be (re-)shaped?

• What is the ‘engaged university’s’ systemic role concerning societal fractures and discordance, exclusivity, inequality and discrimination?

• What will the world of work look like in the future, and what are its implications for the labour market and employment?

• How do science, research and innovation in an ‘engaged university’ promote economic and societal development?

• What are the challenges and resource strategies required for the sustainability of an ‘engaged university’?

• How do digital transformation and technology-enhanced teaching-learning and research-innovation promote the mission and objectives of the ‘engaged university’?

“The one thing that COVID-19 has taught us is that South African universities are collaborating in ways never experienced before.

“Universities are beginning to see the benefits of an articulated effort at building anew, from assisting each other going online to shared research projects across institutions and disciplines, and from engaging within the sector for the benefit of those outside the sector,” Meyer said.

The conference will be held from 6-8 October 2021. It aims to bring more than 140 local and international experts together to consider a vast range of issues relating to the engaged university during COVID-19.

USAf is pleased to announce that registration for the no-fee conference is open. Delegates can register for virtual attendance for the entire conference or for only the specific sessions they wish to attend.

This article appeared on University Wolrd News on 26 August 2021 written by Professor Sibongile Muthwa, the Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University and the Chair of Universities South Africa (USAf).

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