Reflections on engaged, more responsive universities

For far too long, two core missions of universities, of teaching and research, have enjoyed superior importance over the third mission of community engagement.

Universities must restore their legitimacy in society. If we want our institutions to stay relevant, to endure and sustain well into the future, they must transform and preoccupy themselves with improving the human condition.

The engaged university is, therefore, the central theme around which the 2nd National Higher Education Conference will take place from 6-8 October.

The engaged university is about a transformative university that cannot exist in society without engaging with societal problems.

Such a university mounts knowledge production and teaching and learning by combining it with societal needs and priorities. A university must use its intellectual asset base to respond to the challenges of society.

At Nelson Mandela University, we talk of engagement as an equalising project.

We take seriously our catalytic role of enhancing science with what society is already grappling with. We concern ourselves with traditional knowledge systems, multilingualism, what assets students bring with them when they enrol with us.

We talk of learning and teaching because we must learn before we teach. Education cannot be mounted as an elitist but rather a liberating exercise – committed to social justice and embracing all knowledge traditions.

We understand that, regardless of background, students bring specific understandings to our campuses. We are, therefore, keen to break down imaginary borders between ourselves and society.

Engagement in SA

We know that universities in South Africa have always engaged; but they have done so in a transactional manner. We are not where we need to be yet. Now we need to ask: “Who owns the university? How legitimate is it? How must we measure its legitimacy?”

It is about exploring what the substance of past engagement has been. At this conference, we will be asking the questions above and more: “Who is the university serving and not serving?”

Professor Chris Brink, emeritus vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, UK, and former rector of Stellenbosch University, asks: “What are universities good at, and what are they good for?”

Business representatives should and will have the opportunity at the conference to reflect on what they see as their role in advancing higher education.

Issues of inclusion; gender parity; gender-based violence and symbols within our institutions will find expression in this conference. International speakers will enable us to look ourselves in the mirror and say: “Where do we stand regarding the continent? Where do we stand globally? How do we immerse ourselves within that broader context?”

So, against this backdrop, questions about a range of other challenges come to the fore, including the funding crisis in higher education, research and innovation impact, transformation in its broad sense, including transformation of teaching and learning, as well as equipping both the sector and students with tools for the world of work.

This conference is ultimately about social justice and for everyone who wants to make universities accountable to society on how they respond to the knowledge project.

Registration for online attendance remains open.

Professor Sibongile Muthwa is the vice-chancellor and principal of Nelson Mandela University, South Africa. She is also the chairperson of Universities South Africa (USAf), the representative association of South Africa’s 26 public universities, and co-host of the upcoming conference in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education.

University World News is the media partner at the conference.