UP’s Senate Conference charts path into the future

Posted on March 05, 2021

Experts from institutions around the world joined in on a robust discussion about the future priorities of universities in the wake of COVID-19.

“In tackling the COVID-19 challenge, the UP community is ready to be both future-oriented and future-focused.” This was the sentiment shared by Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP Professor Tawana Kupe at the start of the second annual UP Senate Conference, hosted virtually on 22 and 23 February 2021.

Prof Kupe was giving his welcome address when he further highlighted that while universities across the world have been working through instability over the years, the COVID-19 pandemic had acted as the ultimate disrupter and challenged universities to be more forward-thinking and technologically advanced.

“One way UP is changing higher education and itself is its pivot to transdisciplinarity. Social problems, in particular the complicated, complex and wicked ones, do not come packaged in disciplines,” he said. “They require us to think, teach, learn and create knowledge across disciplinary boundaries to solve real-life problems. This is the only way to beat current pandemics and crises of the future. It is the way that best assures humanity and the environment a better, more sustainable future.”

This year’s Senate Conference was organised under the topic ‘Reimagining higher education – frontlines, intersections and opportunities’, which, Prof Kupe added, is “an opposite topic for us to discuss and debate the ideas that will influence our academic direction as an intellectual and knowledge institution”.

Contributions from members of Senate covered a variety of topics, including what future UP envisages for itself, what research priorities the reimagined university should focus on, and what kind of institutional cultures and identities could be envisaged in a reimagined UP among others.

Presenters from institutions in other parts of the world were invited to share some of their thoughts, experiences and expertise. One such speaker was Prof Funmi Olonisakin, Vice-President and Vice-Principal of King’s College in London. Prof Olonisakin spoke on ‘The research-intensive university in an African context: experiences and perspectives’.

“Some of the global challenges of our times are shaping the 21st century in remarkable ways,” she said. “But what we are seeing is the resurgence of the university through the idea that science is important and it has always been. But the ways in which policymakers shaped the space shifted the dial a little bit in the past decade or so. Experts are there for expertise, and not only in the university but in research-based expertise. And their expertise has now been propelled to centre stage. At the same time, we are seeing the unequal power dynamics between the global north and the global south, especially as they relate to knowledge institutions; this has been laid bare by the pandemic.”

She added that there are some positives to this; the opportunity to collaborate, especially where knowledge building is concerned. Prof Olonisakin said this is the time for African knowledge institutions, particularly research-intensive universities, to seize the moment and assert influence in order to give visibility to emerging African knowledge systems and ways of working, “while facilitating new approaches to global engagement”. 

Other institutions from across the world that were represented included Murdoch University in Perth, Australia; New York University, the UK-based consulting firm Delta-Hedron, which specialises in the management of innovation; and the MJ Dennis higher education consultancy from Florida in the US.

Former Vice-Chancellor of UP and current Director of Delta-Hedron Professor Calie Pistorius shared his thoughts on what the future of work will be.

“As the world contemplates post-COVID-19 scenarios, the great reset presents unique opportunities but at the same time threats for students and universities. Our current students, alumni and particularly the next generation of students will live in and work in a world that’s very different to the one we currently inhabit. The university’s role is arguably to deliver graduates that proactively contribute towards creating the future rather than merely reacting to a world they inherit from others. We must ensure that our graduates are not only comfortable with change, and change management, but we must prepare them to be change leaders who can shape the future,” Prof Pistorius said.

Closing off the conference, Prof Kupe said he is pleased that the conversation around the reimagining of UP and the higher education sector has come to centre stage.

“When I made this suggestion for the first time it was in a meeting with my fellow vice-chancellors,” he said. “Some were a little sceptical. My expectation was initially that I would be met with a response that sought to wait for COVID-19 to pass, and for us to return to the way things were. That has not happened, and I believe this is something worth celebrating. At the same time, I want to caution us all to not let this concept become opaque and meaningless. We want UP to be future-orientated and future-focused. To be able to adopt the lens of transdisciplinarity will be important in the exercise of breaking silos. From the smallest unit or formation of the university, to the largest.”

- Author Masego Panyane

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