Universities need to ‘rethink their purpose’

Posted on May 16, 2018

Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf) highlighted the need for universities to revisit what the purpose of higher education is and what the purpose of a university is, and conceded that the South African university system, over the last two to three years, had experienced a serious crisis since the early 1990s.*

He was the guest speaker at the university’s annual Academic Achievers Awards on 10 May. The event honoured academics who were successfully rated by the National Research Foundation and whose research has made a positive impact locally and internationally.

USAf is a representative body of South Africa’s public universities and aims to promote a more inclusive, responsive and equitable national system of higher education.

He referred to the Fees Must Fall student uprisings in 2016, which threw both universities and the national state into chaos. He highlighted that the two key issues raised by the students were ‘deceptively’ simple in construction: free higher education and quality, decolonised education. These he explained could be interpreted as the students ‘cry for the institutions to develop a social justice agenda that links them much more closely, on the one hand, to the enveloping challenges of a developing society (including social mobility); and on the other hand, that allows all South Africans to see themselves represented in the knowledge enterprises of the universities.’

Prof Bawa defined the crises that universities were facing over the last 10-20 years both globally and nationally as being that of ‘purpose, identity and confidence’. He explained that historically, higher education was beyond the reach of most South African families and that the demand for decolonised education was an interesting request, with the students asking if the 26 public universities in South Africa were really being South African universities.

He said that the challenges universities in South Africa faced were not unique to the country, as ‘around the world, universities are experiencing new pressures whether they be severe funding cuts, the erosion of institutional autonomy and academic freedom and deep attacks on what are seen to be some form or other of elitism’. He stated that even universities in Europe faced growing populism, xenophobia, nationalism and the erosion of democracy. He stressed that if universities were to address large societal problems, then collaborative engagement had to be integrated into the core functions of universities, resting at the very heart of the mandate of universities as social institutions, as sites of production of knowledge, its application and its dissemination. 

Prof Bawa emphasised that engagement needed to be integrated into universities across their research and innovation, their teaching and learning, as it is a powerful mechanism for institutional transformation. Furthermore, universities need to be deliberate in shaping themselves to address the creation of intellectual, social and physical meshes between ‘themselves and the struggles and aspirations of their publics as both universities and their publics are shaped by these interactions, even though there is a very significant set of power relations that define these interactions’.

Prof Bawa said: ‘Just as universities are specifically designed for research and teaching/learning, they must be designed for engagement with multiple dynamic interfaces where the intersections of humanity, its poetry, its technologies and nature are re-imagined by multiple partners on an ongoing basis.’

*Prof Bawa's speech was based on a paper that was published in 2017 in a Council of Europe publication titled, 'Higher Education for Diversity, Social Inclusion and Community: a Democratic Imperative'.


- Author Myan Subrayan

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