UP-hosted THE Pan-African Universities Summit: ‘The weight of expectation is growing on academics to become changemakers’

Posted on April 18, 2024

The need for a new type of graduate, shaped by a new type of university leader and academic was a recurring theme on the first day of the inaugural Times Higher Education (THE) Pan-African Universities Summit, hosted at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Future Africa Institute on 17 and 18 April.

About 300 university leaders from 32 countries attended the summit, which is a partnership between THE, UP and Stellenbosch University. The theme for the summit was ‘The Future of African Higher Education’.

As many as 45 speakers shared insights into the future of higher education in Africa through plenary sessions, panel discussions and masterclasses. Topics ranged from the role of industry and university partnerships in promoting sustainable development to digital transformation at African universities, and defining ethical leadership and its real-world impact.

Many delegates felt that African university leaders and academics should serve as changemakers in society by developing graduates who think critically, and are ethical, entrepreneurial, empathetic, creative, compassionate, citizen-centred and job-creating, among many other things.

The question for them was: do today’s academics and leaders have the skills to be changemakers, especially considering that they might not have been taught the skills that they’re now expected to teach students?

Speaker after speaker made the point that if Africa is to succeed in addressing grand challenges such as rampant poverty and unemployment, then university leaders and academics will have to do things differently – and this should go beyond curriculum transformation.

Insightful conversations about the future of higher education in Africa took place among delegates at THE Pan-African Universities Summit.

Trained in a different context

Imparting the range of skills students need today could be a tall order for academics who honed their skills at a time when technical academic and disciplinary proficiency were all-important.

Professor Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu, Dean of UP’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, moderated a panel discussion titled ‘Education, entrepreneurship and equity: Creating a sustainable knowledge economy in African higher education’. She commented on the changing role that academics are being expected to fulfil.  

“When I listen to all the things we need to impart to our students, I think, that’s a lot, and yet it’s very exciting. When I was trained, we were not taught to do all these things. Entrepreneurship was never mentioned; critical-thinking skills were not mentioned. We were taught to do the technical work, and we are the ones at universities teaching. So the questions keep coming to us as deans: how do you expect us to do this?”

She quipped that “perhaps with the bosses here, we might get some insights” into that. This was a reference to the many high-level university leaders present, including vice-chancellors from universities in Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe, among others.

Asked what African university leaders should be doing to make visible contributions to societal transformation, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, Vice-Chancellor of Makerere University in Uganda, said: “If we are to transform society, we must put in place measures to spur innovation and entrepreneurship at universities and with people in the communities.”

Makerere University, for example, had established an innovation hub where students come up with about 100 student businesses a year, while in Zimbabwe, every public university now has an innovation hub.

Making a mindset shift

A mindset shift is also critical, said Prof Nawangwe, noting that these shifts “must begin with the professors”.

Sylvia Kunkyebe of the Mastercard Foundation, which invests heavily in higher education across Africa, commented on the notion of student success as going beyond graduating and finding a job. Universities, she said, should also be focusing on character-building and ethical qualities.

“If we want to transform this continent, graduates need to be ethical; they need to be citizen-centric – not just thinking about themselves but what their education can do for society.”

For Kunkyebe, tertiary education should “produce a human being who is not just knowledgeable but who has a heart and thinks of themselves, not just for their own good and that of their families, but as changemakers and transformative leaders for their communities”.

“Universities should also think of themselves as transformative institutions and changemakers in the communities they find themselves,” she added. “As leaders, of course, we are also changemakers.”

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