The now time is

Uni­ver­si­ties, as cen­tres of knowl­edge, ought to lead trans­for­ma­tion, writes Mandla Makhanya

CityPress - - Voices - Pro­fes­sor Makhanya is the prin­ci­pal and vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of SA

Over the past two years, South African pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have been en­gulfed by a wave of protests by stu­dents de­mand­ing free ed­u­ca­tion, social jus­tice for con­tract work­ers of univer­sity out­sourced ser­vices as well as trans­for­ma­tion of the sec­tor. For ob­vi­ous rea­sons, the #FeesMustFall cam­paign has gained promi­nence that has eclipsed the calls for both in­sourc­ing and trans­for­ma­tion. This is hardly sur­pris­ing when one takes into con­sid­er­a­tion the per­sis­tent in­ter­gen­er­a­tional poverty in our coun­try, ever-grow­ing lev­els of inequality and un­em­ploy­ment, as well as un­der­em­ploy­ment.

The de­mand for ac­cess to free higher ed­u­ca­tion is seen as key to open­ing vast work, lead­er­ship and en­tre­pre­neur­ial op­por­tu­ni­ties in our so­ci­ety. With Tech­ni­cal and Vo­ca­tional Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing col­leges cur­rently seen as less at­trac­tive, pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are un­der ex­treme pres­sure to ab­sorb the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents.

Uni­ver­si­ties have been pri­mary and of­ten soft tar­gets of protests by stu­dents de­mand­ing free ed­u­ca­tion, but univer­sity fund­ing in gen­eral terms is not some­thing that uni­ver­si­ties can re­solve on their own. It is pri­mar­ily a gov­ern­ment that can make changes in the univer­sity fund­ing for­mula through fis­cal and pol­icy in­ter­ven­tion.

The Com­mis­sion of En­quiry into Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing as well as cur­rent in­ter­ven­tions by the gov­ern­ment through in­creased Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme fund­ing for poor stu­dents and the “miss­ing mid­dle”, are a clear in­di­ca­tion of this.

The is­sue of trans­for­ma­tion is more com­plex and yet more cen­tral to the aca­demic project of a univer­sity as a knowl­edge and train­ing in­sti­tu­tion. More­over, it is an area that is within the com­pe­tence of any univer­sity.

Trans­for­ma­tion has many di­men­sions that in­clude, but are not lim­ited to, cur­ricu­lums, sym­bols that de­fine pub­lic spa­ces, gen­der, in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture, lan­guage, pro­cure­ment and em­ploy­ment eq­uity.

Given the colo­nial and apartheid his­tory of our coun­try and the African con­ti­nent, trans­for­ma­tion is an im­per­a­tive that goes to the very essence of what the role and pur­pose of a univer­sity in our so­ci­ety and the con­ti­nent are.

The ap­point­ment of for­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki as Unisa’s chan­cel­lor and his clar­ion call for an em­brace of an African­ised univer­sity that is rel­e­vant and linked to the so­ci­ety it serves will give us a new im­pe­tus to ac­cel­er­ate the im­ple­men­ta­tion of our trans­for­ma­tion agenda.

Cur­rently, the call for trans­for­ma­tion has been ar­tic­u­lated in gen­eral terms that some­times con­ceal the com­plex­ity of this es­sen­tial process. As we deal with cur­ricu­lum change, there is a need to pose and an­swer ped­a­gog­i­cal and epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ques­tions to guide the process.

De­coloni­sa­tion of our cur­ricu­lums, wherein dis­man­tling of colo­nial, apartheid and Euro­cen­tric sys­tems of ed­u­ca­tion are ma­jor fac­tors, must also be in­formed by clar­ity on what con­sti­tutes a rel­e­vant, Afro­cen­tric ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that is still glob­ally com­pet­i­tive.

At the heart of this project are the past, present and fu­ture ex­pe­ri­ences and realities of our so­ci­ety and the African con­ti­nent. For this to hap­pen, an in­sti­tu­tional ar­range­ment that will cre­ate an in­fra­struc­ture for mul­tis­take­holder en­gage­ment within and out­side the univer­sity is an im­por­tant ve­hi­cle to cre­ate own­er­ship of the process and its co-cre­ated out­put.

Uni­ver­si­ties, as cen­tres of knowl­edge, ought to em­brace and lead trans­for­ma­tion rather than be­ing re­ac­tive and some­times de­fen­sive.

Trans­for­ma­tion is a com­plex yet nec­es­sary im­per­a­tive that has no sin­gle tem­plate. Be­ing an open dis­tance-learn­ing and com­pre­hen­sive univer­sity with a na­tion­wide and con­ti­nen­tal footprint also com­pounds Unisa’s trans­for­ma­tion re­flec­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion.

It is im­por­tant to re­flect on how a trans­formed, Afro­cen­tric sci­ence, en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy pro­gramme that still com­plies to set in­ter­na­tional norms and stan­dards will take shape.

It may be eas­ier to an­swer these ques­tions in many social sci­ence pro­grammes than in nat­u­ral sciences and en­gi­neer­ing pro­grammes, and yet we ought to be imag­i­na­tive and cre­ative to pro­vide an­swers. Con­tact res­i­dent uni­ver­si­ties of­ten have all their stake­hold­ers within a rea­son­able dis­tance for en­gage­ment and Unisa has to con­tend with the fact that it has more than 300 000 en­rolled stu­dents across the coun­try, the con­ti­nent and the world.

This ne­ces­si­tates the use of on­line forms of en­gage­ment to en­able broader par­tic­i­pa­tion in craft­ing and im­ple­ment­ing a trans­for­ma­tion pro­gramme.

The pro­gramme of em­brac­ing mul­ti­lin­gual­ism is yet an­other im­por­tant as­pect of our trans­for­ma­tion agenda that will also need sig­nif­i­cant de­ploy­ment of re­sources in de­vel­op­ing the marginalised in­dige­nous lan­guages.

The time for end­less de­bates on univer­sity trans­for­ma­tion with­out im­ple­men­ta­tion is gone and fail­ure to lead trans­for­ma­tion car­ries the enor­mous risk of re­act­ing to an ex­ter­nally im­posed change or social dis­or­der that may desta­bilise and ul­ti­mately weaken the univer­sity sec­tor.

We are in a process of study­ing ex­am­ples of var­i­ous uni­ver­si­ties that not only suc­cess­fully trans­formed but be­came agents of so­ci­etal trans­for­ma­tion.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mak­erere Univer­sity in Uganda and Dar es Salaam Univer­sity in Tanzania were lead­ing knowl­edge in­sti­tu­tions that gen­er­ally in­formed the African pol­icy agenda. If our uni­ver­si­ties suc­cess­fully trans­form, they may be in a po­si­tion to play a mean­ing­ful role in lead­ing so­ci­etal devel­op­ment, in­clud­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Africa Agenda 2063.

The in­au­gu­ra­tion of Mbeki, a glob­ally recog­nised cham­pion of the African Re­nais­sance, as Chan­cel­lor of Unisa, is a sig­nif­i­cant boost to the trans­for­ma­tion pro­gramme of Unisa and the univer­sity sec­tor in gen­eral, es­pe­cially at a time when the de­mand for change is more likely to grow once fi­nal­ity has been reached on the stu­dent fund­ing en­gage­ments cur­rently hap­pen­ing.

PHOTO: DEAAN VIVIER / NETWERK24

NEW BROOM For­mer pres­i­dent Thabo Mbeki, in­au­gu­rated as chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of SA last month, will boost the trans­for­ma­tion agenda of the univer­sity

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