Why universities need to rethink their reason for being

"Reimagining the world-class university” was the assignment for the Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Universities Summit held at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, recently.

BRICS is the acronym for the association of the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, initially formed in 2009 and which South Africa joined in 2010.

The re-imagining took place against the backdrop of the launch of the 2017 Times Higher Education or THE World University Rankings, including those for BRICS and Emerging Economies. The rankings have been expanded to include 300 institutions compared to the previous year’s 200. Among the BRICS countries, China was top of the charts with 52 universities of the 300; India was second with 27 and Brazil third with 25. Russia was in fifth place with 24 institutions.

South Africa had eight universities in the top 300, including conference host University of Johannesburg, while the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand featured in the top 10.

According to Phil Baty, editor of the THE World University Rankings, many universities use the rankings to identify where improvement is necessary for the national good. “The rise of China in the rankings is because China sees universities as driving economic growth.”

However, Baty acknowledged rankings were “provocative and controversial”. Indeed, controversial enough for John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, to state that “rankings are not part of this discussion”.

“Rankings can only have so much effect on WCUs [World-Class Universities],” said Douglass, author of the 2015 book The New Flagship University: Changing the paradigm from global ranking to national relevancy. “We need to look at what the future of universities is in a world that currently looks to be turning against globalisation. Institutions should think about local regard and what is their reason for being, instead of getting high in THE rankings.”

“Flagship universities are necessarily tied to the political, cultural and socio-economic world they serve,” Douglass said. “But they are not institutions waiting for the next ministerial directive to launch them down another road.”

Speaking on “The Pact between Society and Higher Education in BRICS”, Simon Schwartzman, senior researcher, Institute for Studies on Labour and Society in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said the main challenge for BRICS countries was to re-establish, or create from scratch, the pact between higher education and society.

“In this pact, the higher education sector provides valued goods and services to society – education, knowledge and opportunities for social mobility – and receives financial support and autonomy.”

Such a pact could not be taken for granted. “The institutions need to be responsive, and to continuously prove their quality and relevance to society.”

’Don’t try to copy Oxford or Harvard’

According to Adam Habib, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, a world-class university must be locally responsible and globally competitive. “Don’t set out to emulate Oxford and Harvard. If you do that you just become a pale imitation; you need to contribute something that nobody else can contribute.”

Habib said it was also vital to broaden access to the poor, “otherwise universities consolidate the rich-poor divide. We have to tackle enabling students to have access across the class divide.”

The global competitiveness of South Africa in the field of higher education was being put at risk by the country’s current concerns with Africanisation and decolonisation, according to Denis Paul Ekpo, professor of comparative literature, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. “This sort of thing is on the wane in the rest of Africa. But South Africa never really knew its own African moment, which other African countries had at the time of their independence, because of apartheid.

“Other African countries have had African policies since the Sixties, so higher education includes African philosophy, history, literature and cosmology.

“We are post-African now. We don’t like the colonial starting point but it’s a fact of history. Colonisation is the state of the world. Most countries were colonised at some time or other. But if we focus on the traumatic side we lose sight of the gifts it brought.

“We can’t be limited by our ‘Afri-dentity’. We are co-heirs to the riches of modernity. We can’t assume our international heritage if we insist on the ‘Africanness’ of Africa.”

The danger of exclusive religious zealotry was the theme of Nigerian Nobel Laureate for literature Wole Soyinka’s opening keynote speech titled “A University for the Future: A humanist’s reimagining”, in which he advocated the introduction of a foundation year of “materialist induction” and “intellectual inquiry” for university students.

Historically universities were religious foundations and “male spaces”, something that still impacts on gender dynamics, especially in African higher education institutions, according to Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela, vice-provost for international affairs and global strategies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States.

“There is a persistent pattern of the marginalisation of women and there continues to be a stark absence of women in managerial roles.”

Mabokela said that more than two decades after the end of apartheid in South Africa, the position of blacks and women “had not changed substantially”. Though there was near gender parity in the student body this was not reflected in management.

No female speakers

The gender bias was clearly evidenced by the conference itself in which there was not one female keynote speaker and the majority of panel members were male. This was commented on during proceedings and an undertaking was made to rectify the imbalance at next year’s conference to be held in Rabat, Morocco.

There was also a disproportional representation of BRICS countries among speakers, and even within those, the only speaker from a Chinese university was on a panel highlighting student expectations.

This apparent lack of buy-in was perhaps why the vice-chancellors' panel on “Can the BRICS Build Greater Higher Education Links with Africa?” was notably cautious.

“BRICS itself is still an unimagined category,” said Adebayo Olukoshi, African regional director of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “It still needs to define its identity and world outlook before we can measure its potential for education benefits.”