Connecting students with life's realities

Students are traditionally selected into universities on the basis of their academic qualifications. But are there more important attributes – such as a desire for social justice – that should be considered and nurtured?

Yes, if the aim is to create transformative leaders, according to Fred Swaniker, founder of the African Leadership Academy based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Speaking at last week’s international webinar on “Are universities crucibles of transformative leadership?”, Swaniker said universities can be “crucibles” in which to create transformative leaders, but a change in selection criteria was needed.

The webinar was hosted by University World News and DrEducation as part of the Transformative Leadership series published in partnership with The MasterCard Foundation and attracted 1,100 participants.

“In our application forms we ask applicants if they have they seen problems in their community and what they have done about it. When they see a problem, do they act?” said Swaniker.

“We need to ignite the fire in students; to expose them to the injustices of the world – they must understand education is there for a purpose and not just for education’s sake.”

Patrick Awuah, co-founder of Ashesi University, a liberal arts college in Ghana focused on educating future African leaders, was in agreement: “If we select and educate the right people we can create enlightened students.”

Solution-driven leaders

By “enlightened” Awuah said he meant “deeply ethical people, with empathy and compassion, who want be part of the solution in Africa”.

“When we talk about transformative leaders were are not just talking political leaders but a large swathe of people in business, the private sector and government.”

You don’t have to look much further than Kenyan Lucia Lebasha for an example of transformative leadership: founder of Save The Pastoralist Initiative aimed at improving the lives of the pastoral communities of northern Kenya, she is currently a MasterCard Foundation Scholar at EARTH University in Costa Rica and co-founder of JUSE, a company at EARTH University dedicated to agro-tourism.

“Being a transformative leader doesn’t depend on what you have or what you can do,” she said. “What matters is that you can see the problem and see what you can do about it – it’s about what you do.”

Her views resonated with the words of webinar moderator Dr Rahul Choudaha, principal researcher and CEO of DrEducation, a global higher education research and consulting firm, who defined transformative leaders as people who want to bring about change.

Social change

“If they see a problem they ask themselves ‘what can I do to solve it?’ They are not bystanders. They are people with clear vision and integrity… seeking to achieve deep and equitable changes in social conditions.”

“Universities are the enablers and creators of those future leaders,” said Choudaha, although an online poll conducted during the webinar found 47% of participants in agreement with this statement, while a substantial 35% disagreed. Participants also indicated their view that the development of transformative leaders was not a priority among higher education institutions.

Dame Barbara Stocking, president of the all-women Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and former CEO of Oxfam GB, suggested that student attitudes regarding leadership were problematic, particularly those in the developing world who saw leaders as people “who tell you what to do”.

“As a transformative leader you have to be in partnership with people,” she said, wryly acknowledging that currently “there are not very good role models in politics; they are not the best examples for students.”

At Murray Edwards College, she said, there was an emphasis on skills and personal development, especially important in an all-women college.

“At Cambridge we’ve had 800 years of men running the system to suit men – it’s still very much a man’s world – and young women need to go out into that world with deep confidence in themselves and they must be resilient.”

Not just about knowledge

And universities also have to change, said Swaniker. “They were established as places to do research, create knowledge, and latterly to produce people to provide a labour force. By and large that has not changed. We need to begin to redefine the purpose of universities – they are not just about knowledge but to serve society and impact lives.”

On returning to Ghana, Awuah said he encountered a major problem with rote learning in higher education institutions: students were simply learning facts and repeating them back to their professors. “Students were not studying broadly enough and there was no practical application.”

In contrast, the curriculum at Ashesi University is informed by seven learning goals embracing ethics and civic engagement, critical thinking, good communication skills, leadership, teamwork, innovation, and technological competence. The curriculum also moves across disciplinary boundaries.

“Take engineering, for example. It’s not only about problem solving given the constraints of physics,” Awuah said; there were also questions around purpose, desirability and long term impacts. “An engineer who studied philosophy would be a better engineer – forward-looking and not just following instructions.”

“We need to combine disciplines to create thoughtful, entrepreneurial change agents in their societies.”

Re-purposing higher education

Institutions such as the African Leadership Academy, or ALA, and Ashesi University are actively re-purposing higher education, and similarly the Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme at Cambridge University, according to Stocking: “Like ALA this selects students not only for their academic ability but those who have actually done something for the needs of their community, who have shown engagement.”

Awuah said the solution to creating future leaders lay in choosing the right students but also providing a formative experience in the classroom. “We have drawn up syllabi at Ashesi reflecting our seven goals. All student activities must reflect this; we want to be a university without walls – there shouldn’t be walls between disciplines, nor between the institution and our community.”

Swaniker emphasised that leadership “is learnt through practice not through theory. At ALA we create an environment that gives our students a chance to lead every day. The students manage their own transport system… they get to teach classes; they all start ventures off or on campus that put leadership theory into practice.”

Africa faces great challenges, said Swaniker, including poverty, insufficient access to quality education and climate change, but it also presents great opportunities in a number of areas such as agriculture, the empowerment of women, and conservation. “We tell students to declare a mission for your life in light of those challenges and opportunities. Start with a problem you want to solve and build your knowledge around that if you want to make an impact on the world.”

Lebasha agreed: “Universities should create programmes that connect students with the realities of life; programmes with an entrepreneurial aspect which enable students to learn how to manage resources. And to consider the community first; that is the foundation of everything.”