Universities – Learning from society for society

The concept of the developmental university can be described as an academic establishment dedicated to making a direct and indirect contribution to all aspects of a society's development.

The developmental university accomplishes this through the production and dissemination of knowledge, teaching and learning, advocacy, partnership and linkages with communities and industries. It also initiates and champions programmes to develop students’ entrepreneurial skills and other creative skills to make its graduates employable in the public, private and volunteer sectors.

The developmental university designs courses and other programmes that allow students to acquire valuable skills as development agents and also developmental benefits for society as a whole. The result is that, in the developmental university, knowledge is pursued for its developmental potential or benefit rather than for its own sake. This gives society a reasonable return on the resources it invests in the university.

In addition, professors’, lecturers’ and students’ performances are assessed on their research activities or output. In the developmental university everything revolves around the core function of producing and disseminating knowledge for the improvement of society.

Though the developmental university maintains in its organisational structure the values of the classical university such as humanism, tolerance, collaboration, intellectual freedom, criticality and interdepartmental cooperation, these values take on a new meaning and direction. For instance, faculties and departments collaborate on a research project by contributing their respective expertise and resources.

Against the classical model

The concept of the developmental university originated in the 1980s when it was realised that the classical university model, either brought over or borrowed by developing countries, was irrelevant to the needs and aspirations of those countries.

One visible defect of the classical university model is that it does not equip its graduates with the repertoire of skills, knowledge and dispositions that allow them to be functionally productive within the context of their countries. As a result, mass unemployment has become increasingly the defining characteristic of graduates of classical universities in Africa and other developing regions.

Additionally, graduates of classical universities have become an immense economic burden for their countries as the vast majority of them are entirely dependent on employment opportunities created in the public sector. Consequently, the contribution of these graduates to the economic growth rates or gross domestic product of their countries is negligible.

Further, classical universities in Africa and other developing regions are disconnected from the cultures and traditions of their countries.

During the massive decolonisation movement that swept rapidly across Africa in the 1960s, classical universities were described in pejorative terms like 'alien institutions', 'instruments of colonial policy' and 'bastions of Euro-colonialism'. That is because they were and still are internally focused, inward-looking and have practically no linkage with external institutions and communities in the larger society. They have not generally forged any partnerships with business, government or civil organisations.

A relationship with government is strategically important not only for obtaining research funding and disseminating research findings but also for harmonising the university's role with the government’s development agenda, priorities, policies and programmes.

Additionally, classical universities do not respond to the needs and aspirations of communities at the local, regional or national level. In Africa, the only time the general public hears about these universities in the news media is when their students boycott lectures as part of their action plan for more resources from government, or when professors and lecturers go on strike for better remuneration packages and conditions of employment.

There is a growing body of literature that asserts that one of the benefits of higher education to developing countries is that it develops graduates' capacity to contribute to or engage in a variety of institutional reforms. This assumes that university education automatically develops such capacities in graduates without recognising the importance of the quality of pedagogy.

Indeed, the ability of university-educated graduates to contribute to their country's economic growth or institutional reform depends considerably on the instructional pedagogy used in educating them.

An instructional pedagogy that equips students with lifelong learning skills, develops their problem-solving capacity, nurtures intimate connections with society, encourages critical-thinking skills, creativity and flexible thinking has greater prospects of fostering students' institutional reform and self-employability skills.

Compare this to an instructional pedagogy that stifles questioning and critique, that is oriented toward spoon-feeding students with information and regurgitation of information and is detached from students’ cultural and social communities.

By instructional pedagogy I am referring to the practices, strategies and methods of learning and teaching. These include but are not restricted to course content, methods of content delivery, texts, course outcomes (the skills, knowledge and dispositions that students are expected to acquire), learning activities, teacher feedback mechanisms, professor-student interaction, assessment practices and learning evaluation techniques.

A pedagogy of connection

We need instead a pedagogy of connection. This is an instructional pedagogy designed to ensure that the developmental university – including its administrators, professors, lecturers and students – is intimately connected to society, its problems, challenges, culture and language, demographics, economy and institutions.

The philosophy underpinning this pedagogy is that students could make significant contributions to their society if they possessed a deeper understanding of that society and were armed with suitable tools for problem-learning, problem-solving and continuous improvement.

The pedagogy of connection could be enhanced or built on the following foundations:
  • Internship: This involves placing university students in internships in their chosen professional careers or jobs in which they are interested. Its primary purpose is to assist students to develop practical skills, knowledge and the disposition to assist their transition from academic studies into the world of work.

    For the purpose of connecting with society, the internship should go beyond career orientation. It should allow students to assess the adequacy of their preparation in terms of skills, knowledge and the dispositions they need.

    In addition, students should assess the effectiveness of their profession's or field's contribution to society in general. For example, the following questions are relevant to this type of assessment: What is the profession or field contributing at present to society? What is society's perception of this field or profession? Which areas or sectors of society need improvement or are facing problems? What could be done to improve or increase the profession's or field's contribution to those sectors of society?

    Student internship should be given credit status and all students regardless of field of study should be required to participate in it. Students' responses to the questions raised above should form part of the documents that they are required to submit upon completion of their internship.

  • Externship: Students would shadow well-respected professionals or groups of professionals for the purpose of exploring their career interests and the characteristics of a professional field. An externship is distinguished from an internship in terms of its short duration and primary intent.

    Students would be required to file an assessment report stating the contribution of that profession or field to any sector of society. Crafting such an assessment report would require data from focused observation, interviews and conversations. An externship would have a credit status similar to that of an internship. Students could undertake an externship at any stage of their academic life.

  • Learning and research projects: Students should undertake learning projects that require them to connect in some significant ways with cultural institutions, members of society, the economy and others outside of the university.

    Similarly, students should conduct research as part of the courses they take and also as a compulsory requirement for earning degrees. This would include writing a report that addresses a problem or recommends improvement plans.

  • Visits: As a community of learners, students should visit different places in their society as an integral part of learning. A group of civil engineering students could visit a bridge or highway with the purpose of problem learning or solving.

    Business or economics students could visit a stock exchange floor to observe processes of stocks trading and for opportunities to ask traders questions. A cohort of sociology students could visit prisons to learn methods used to reform offenders and integrate them back into society. Agricultural students could visit a company that leases agricultural equipment and machinery.

    There are countless places university students could visit for teaching and learning purposes. These can enrich and deepen their learning experiences as well as prepare them for the future as contributing members of society.

  • Guest lecturers: A variety of local or national experts could be invited to articulate their perspectives on anything that students are learning. A traditional herbalist could be invited, for example, to share his or her views and experiences with medical and health science students on specific ailments, methods of diagnosis or detection and therapies for treatment of identified diseases.

    A renowned local or national entrepreneur could be invited to share financial management practices with business students. An expert drummer could also be invited to share drumming skills with students taking music courses.

    Students should have the option to take notes, ask pertinent questions and make comments during and after guest lectures.

    Guest lecturers must have expert knowledge in their chosen fields of endeavour, but they do not necessarily need to be university educated. Knowledge and skills are not exclusively the domain of academics.

  • Community service: This could take numerous forms, but, whatever form it takes, the fundamental idea is to render essential services to external communities in order to forge relationships, learn about community needs and aspirations and document community cultural knowledge for posterity.

    Faculty members could serve on a board of community organisations, organise youth and adult literacy or numeracy sessions, take part in job training programmes or do science tutoring for junior or senior girl secondary school students.

  • Community event: A community event organised by a university for the benefit of its external communities allows the university to bond with its external communities to facilitate relationship-building for research, the dissemination of research results, problem learning and partnership.

    The university could organise community events to discuss, for instance, sustainable methods for cultivating peanut, corn, millet, yam, beans and cassava; proven preservation techniques for food; preventative measures for diseases such as malaria and Aids/HIV.

    They could also cover issues like violence and discrimination against women and healthy parenting approaches. The university should initiate the event rather than the other way around.

  • Consultancy services: Short-term consultancy services for external communities would connect the university to those communities. The consultancy services could be rendered either free of charge or at minimal, affordable fees. Some students with appropriate interests, expertise or talents could join their professors and lecturers to provide consultancy services.

  • Relevant texts: Print and electronic text resources used for courses offered in the developmental university should help to connect the university with society. The developmental university should provide all the necessary incentives to encourage its lecturers and professors to produce text resources that can stimulate students to think about the economic, political or social issues confronting their society.

    They should be relevant, but not necessarily locally designed or produced, given development issues facing a specific country or region may be similar to those of other regions.

  • Forum for technology and innovation: A national forum for technology and innovations is a half-yearly forum that the developmental university should organise in different locations with an invited public audience as well as print and television media personnel. Its core goal is to showcase students' innovations and inventions. That includes prototypes or a set of ideas and costings plans.

    The forum could be divided into sections such as rural development, food production and preservation, sanitation and health. Any students whose inventions are selected for the forum should be given credits toward their degree programme.

Learning from wider society

The developmental university challenges the status quo and assumptions about the position and role of a university in developing countries. The context of societies in developing countries must determine the mission and role of their universities. These cannot simply be borrowed or adopted from the Western world. They should be crafted on the basis of the needs and aspirations of the society where the university is located.

The pedagogy of connection with society is a critical necessity for the developmental university. A closer relationship with the society where the developmental university is domiciled is pivotal to the very existence of the developmental university. Without this relationship, the developmental university cannot realistically exist, let alone function effectively as a partner for development.

The pedagogy of connection aims at ensuring that the developmental university builds stronger relationships with the larger society and deepens students' knowledge about their own society first and foremost.

That way, societal issues, problems and priorities will be at the forefront of whatever students learn in their academic programmes. Wider society should be the text for students, professors and lecturers alike to discuss, analyse, critique and learn from. Consequently, any department or faculty established in a developmental university must be capable of contributing to the improvement of society.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a private education consultant in Canada.