Bridging the inter-generational chasm in higher education

Universities and their leaders have a “social and moral responsibility” to place inequality and social justice at the core of their public purpose concerns, and to address the “massive socio-cultural, inter-generational chasm” which currently exists between the current generation of students and university administrators.

In a keynote address at last month’s “Contribution of Business Schools and Higher Education to Inclusive Development” conference held at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, Professor Derrick Swartz, vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, said it was his belief that the current generation can and should work towards “altering the balance sheet of inequality, and challenge unacceptable policies driving higher education funding models and the wider economic regimes on which our economy is built”.

“Leadership matters,” he said in his address titled “The inter-generational challenges of South African higher education today: Prospects and problems in the pathway of radical development.” Although not all strategies were “equally feasible, available or possible in a given space-time configuration” and compromises were often necessary, he said leaders can make strategic choices.

“Institutions are not simply prisoners of circumstances. We can elect some over other priorities, causes and alliances and we can and should place inequality and social justice at core of our public purposes concerns,” he said.

However, Swartz admitted that the waves of militant student protest in South Africa had “shaken” the university system “to its very core”, exposing the “contradictory fault lines of the ‘political settlement’” and had raised crucial questions about the role of universities in building more diverse and transformative cultures both within the system and in society more broadly.

New voices

Over the past 18 months, South African students across the country have disrupted the national higher education system in their campaign for free higher education and the decolonisation of universities.

Swartz said the student movement represented “new voices” in higher education which pointed to the “unfinished business of democracy, including the root causes of inequality in society". He said although universities were under critique, so were the economic and social relations in which those universities are embedded.

Swartz, a former anti-apartheid student activist, admitted that the recent crisis in higher education and interactions between students and staff had “made patently clear” that there was a “massive social and cultural chasm between students and university administrators” which presented a key “socio-cultural challenge” to universities. This challenge, he said, was in addition to that of addressing inequities inherited from the past.

“It’s a massive gulf … we were talking past each other all the time; we differed on everything; we were bending over to find this generation and I was absolutely puzzled…” he said.

Swartz said many vice-chancellors shared this perception.

“I've spoken to many of the vice-chancellors and all of them have said, ‘I'm lost on this issue; I don’t have the lingua franca to communicate with this precious generation of young people with great ideas about social change … We miss them and they miss us.’

Even though vice-chancellors and their university administrators had shown compassion towards the students’ cause, solidarity and a willingness to meet students half way, Swartz said the chasm persisted.


“If we are to succeed to break the grip of an unjust and unfair past, we must urgently find each other, build alliances based on mutual trust and understanding of being common and equal stakeholders in a system whose success depends crucially on cooperative existence and governance in which students and staff co-create common futures.”

According to Swartz, Universities South Africa, a representative body of South Africa’s public universities that aims to promote a more inclusive, responsive and equitable national system of higher education, has identified several key areas around which the challenges of inclusive education system should focus.

These include governance; the student environment; the staff environment; institutional cultures; teaching and learning environment; research and intellectual culture; issues of institutional equity; funding of higher education; and the role of universities in society.

Swartz said discussions about higher education funding and the mission of universities could not take place without discussions about the economy and political system.

“If we are going to have a conversation about affordable higher education, let alone free higher education … then it must be a conversation among the nation itself. What price, what value do we as a society want to impose for higher education purposes and what are those purposes?"

He said in his view the current crisis in higher education offered “rich opportunities for co-creation and co-promotion of common futures” but closing the inter-generational gap was urgent.

New spaces

“We must create new spaces for these emerging voices to collaborate with us, to rethink many aspects of the university, the curricula across the disciplinary environment, to explore new teaching and learning methodologies and pedagogics, to put new questions onto our research agenda.

“We must make students co-creators in this new knowledge; we must involve our students in building new alliances with civil society to support and promote the ideals of an equal society and work with them to develop new business models for business and for business schools which draw lessons from the long evolutionary history of our species which has survived the threat of extinction since last Ice Age because of its ability to combine a competitive spirit with cooperative genius and a sense of solidarity, compassion and instinctive sense of fairness …"

Swartz said that making strategic choices for a more equal, inclusive and sustainable future did not mean eschewing the markets or refusing to work with the private sector, and argument that was “foolishly self-defeating”.

I think we should use our knowledge to shape the nature of markets, corporations and the private sector of the future and should also learn how to use alliances with the private sector in creative ways so we can advance and contribute towards equity in society.

He said the curriculum was one of the most powerful and most direct means to stimulate new thinking and approaches, techniques and social innovations to impact society.

“By building graduate attributes and social consciousness in our students so they are able to grapple with the complex challenges of the early 21st century … there are surely massive opportunities for intellectual renewal ... to draw on the idealism, energy and unorthodox thinking of students around issues of curriculum deconstruction,” he said.

He said it was necessary to fast track the many promising inclusive development experiments and innovations coming out of university departments and help them to resonate beyond individual disciplines.

Business schools

Swartz described business schools as “ideally placed” to take up challenges of heterodox economics and social thinking in developing approaches in support of alternative growth paths and building alliances between corporates and micro, small and medium-scale enterprises, particularly those involving vulnerable groups.

Professor Piet Naudé, director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School and conference co-chair, said an admission policy based in administrative justice ensured that all students gained access to the business school in terms of a fair process but there were other forms of inequality, such as gender, which escaped the net.

Women were still regarded as teachers rather than researchers and contract workers because of their maternity rights.

“The message is: 'You are not welcome in our system unless you are assimilated on our terms',” he said.

This also applied to black students. Although the majority of business school students in South Africa were 60% black, more whites eventually pursued higher qualifications, said Naudé.

“Students who were able to reach Stellenbosch Business School have already been privileged in the undergraduate system, so in a way business schools are entrenching inequality,” said Naudé.

“The sad story in South Africa is that where you are born and where you go to school is a good indicator of whether you will have access to higher education,” he said.

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, dean of the School of Management at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and conference co-chair, said the classical exclusive model of an exclusive business school that emerged over 25-30 years was waning.

A new collaborative model

“The classical model is on the wane. The role of the business school going forward will be much more about collaborating in science and engineering with colleagues to address social challenges,” said Hailey.

Emphasising the importance of collaboration, conference co-chair and Chair in Higher Education Management at the University of Bath Professor Rajani Naidoo said the great challenges that we face in the world today involve the intersection of political, social and economic factors that interact within and across countries.

Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Naidoo said: "One of the strengths of the conference is that it has attracted researchers from political economy, management, education, sociology and psychology which enables us to look holistically at solutions."

She said she hoped the outcomes of the conference would encourage constructive dialogue on a new “social contract” between governments, citizens, higher education and corporations.