Do universities suffer from having too many masters?

With the risk of over-generalising, what one perceives in many parts of the world is a growing legitimacy gap of universities as social institutions. There are many different and interwoven reasons for this, some as a result of intrinsic factors within the sector and some to do with vast changes taking place in society.

During the recent upheavals experienced by South Africa’s public higher education system as a result of the student activism driven by an agenda of ‘free education’ on the one hand and the demand for ‘decolonised, quality education’ on the other, there were a few days in 2016 when there was a finite chance that the system would simply shut down for a period of time. This in itself was of deep concern, but of even deeper concern was that absolutely nobody came out in defence of the university system, except for the universities themselves.

Universities are complex. They are constantly challenged by shifting patterns of internal relationships between the professoriate, the senior administration, the structures of governance and service staff. The relationship between the universities and their students too are shaped and reshaped by new approaches to management systems, demarcating students either as learners, as active participants in knowledge projects or indeed as consumers of higher education. In fact, this relationship is also defined in two-way flows as students too begin to see universities in more complex ways.

Too many masters?

This complexity is further increased as one thinks of the way in which universities as social institutions relate to their many publics, both local and non-local, shaped again by a number of drivers, most of which are extrinsic to the university.

Universities are expected to be engines for social mobility; producers of human resources for the economy; sources of nation building and citizenship development; producers of social and technological innovation; and central to the project of developing new cohorts of intellectuals, and to strengthening and deepening democracy.

Shifting patterns of labour market absorption, downturns in the economy and the subsequent pressure on national spending on higher education and the adoption of national neo-liberal trajectories all drive the relationship between universities and their publics.

It would appear that universities are indeed the servants of too many masters. But are they?

Notwithstanding the internal and external complexity of the sector and the subsequent very substantial challenge of trying to hold the centre together, universities are unique social institutions. They have two primary differentiators. First, they are knowledge-intensive institutions. They produce knowledge, they apply knowledge and they disseminate knowledge. Second, they are uniquely challenged as knowledge-intensive institutions with working with undergraduate and postgraduate students in the development of new cohorts of intellectuals.

Depending on where we are, what do we see around us? We see the cruelty of driving poverty and ever-increasing levels of inequality. We see a climate change regime that is galloping away with us with growing impacts on humanity. We see the continuing trends in politically motivated violence whether on national or international scales, accompanied by an inexorable rise in human migration, linked to a resurgent trend in humanity’s capacity to define ‘the other’ and to wreak xenophobic havoc.

Rapid changes in the world of work are likely, which will have both positive and negative impacts on the quality of life of working people. We observe the erosion of democracy in many parts of the world with attacks on basic human rights going hand in hand with the erosion of social justice. Food, energy and water insecurity are emerging challenges in many parts of the world.

Dealing with local and global issues

While universities cannot solve these problems, as social institutions they cannot sit on the sidelines either. In fact, as key knowledge-intensive institutions they have a major role to play. Importantly, these issues are simultaneously intensely local and global.

Universities, by virtue of the centrality of their research and knowledge production roles, are also simultaneously local and global. The big challenges facing humanity have to be solved in the global research commons and they have simultaneously to be deeply and vigorously connected to the local context. Graduates have to be both globally functioning and locally connected.

When the local publics of universities begin to see themselves and their contexts represented in the knowledge project of institutions, this will begin to undermine the legitimacy gap mentioned above, the idea that universities operate only in a terrain that does not seek a link with the local context, however that is defined.

Universities may well be perceived as being ‘servants of too many masters’. However, as long as they see themselves, and are seen by society, as special social institutions that are both knowledge intensive and responsible for the development of new cohorts of intellectuals, then they are tied by their purpose to be servants of too many masters.

In fact, this will help them to begin to address the legitimacy gap and to reshape the relationship between universities and their many publics. The demand of South African student activists for ‘free education’ and ‘decolonised, quality education’ is a cry for their universities to be more organically connection to the local context, with a (re-)assertion of a social justice ethos more relevant to that context.

To mitigate against the risk of fatigue and failure, there hasn’t been a more important time when the need for concerted, concrete and effective international action aimed at building what we might glibly refer to as a global research and knowledge commons has been greater.

Ahmed Bawa is chief executive officer of Universities South Africa. He spoke on this subject at the Going Global conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last week.