Can SA universities be incubators of ‘societal good’?

The university’s role in societal development has an ambiguous legacy. Some argue that universities have failed miserably in fulfilling their third mission, or quadruple helix task, of promoting societal impact, development, innovation and engagement.

The question is whether the universities’ teaching, learning and research infrastructure can, and should, play a more deliberative and direct role in society.

I proffer the view that the university’s knowledge infrastructure should play a crucial formative role in local societal development. Such a role is, however, not currently prominent in the university.

The universities’ role in societal development is complex, yet it reflects an impoverished, or perhaps compromised, educational imaginary at the heart of its identity.

Why? Over the past 30 years, the university has become a complex animal. Some point to its qualifications-driven bureaucratic form that has punctured creative, productive scholarship informed by academic autonomy and scholarly integrity.

Others point to the rise of data, machines, artificial intelligence and digital platforms as informing the architectural raison d’être of the university, imposing a techno-scientific logic at the heart of its operations and surveillance cultures.

Knowledge, on this account, is instrumentalised in the service of technology; in other words, university knowledge is limited to producing workers for the platform economy. Such a limited view of knowledge impacts universities’ scholarly identity in such a way that it mitigates against their playing a decisive societal development role.

Engagement work ‘sporadic’

We must ask how the university can be imagined differently. I suggest we proceed from the assumption that the university’s public good, or societal role, is on the institutional back foot. The university’s societal development and engagement work can be described as sporadic and atomistic.

I would argue that imagining the university differently would be founded on a mission to serve the interests of its local community publics. Robust debate in universities would centre on how such a local societal role would be expressed.

At my university, Stellenbosch University in South Africa, it is clear that these local publics are those communities around the university that have hitherto been excluded from the region’s developmental benefits. Locating itself as a progenitor of these communities’ systemic development would become central to the university’s scholarly identity and mission.

Such a mission would require an historically informed response to the 2016 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 4’s educational commitment to sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Communities’ indigenous, colonial, slave and apartheid histories, and their cultural knowledge and linguistic resources would provide the essential resources and development platform for the university’s local responses.

I would argue that the university’s knowledge infrastructure should be placed at the centre of the university’s mission and systematically applied to community developmental challenges. Knowledge, research and scholarship are the university’s primary currency. The local application of knowledge would give the university legitimacy while affirming its specialised role in societal development.

The challenge is to work out how the university’s research and knowledge should be framed and applied to local problem identification in dialogue with communities.

For example, in response to communities’ problems, the university’s knowledge applications would underpin local rehumanisation and citizenship democracy-making practices. It would also inform processes to address water and energy supply challenges and low levels of literacy among school-going children.

The university’s commitment to sustainable planetary futures in local communities remains underexplored. The question is how universities would come to play a planetary sustainability role in society and their local communities.

Here, the university would be challenged to create dialogical spaces in the community through service-learning, as well as other formal and informal curriculum processes, to co-develop the requisite literacies for informing local sustainable community living practices.

The university would thus enter into systematic partnerships with local communities. This would occur via dialogical processes and the insertion of research-based knowledge to address community problems and develop societal infrastructures for sustainable development.

The many current small-scale and atomistic university-based green shoot-type programmes in local communities would provide a concrete basis for imagining the university as a ‘societal good’ incubator. Such efforts must be given a systemic impetus and focus, and be placed at the centre of the university’s identity.

Aslam Fataar is a professor in the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and currently a research and development professor attached to the university’s Transformation Office. This commentary is based on an address presented on a keynote panel at the third Annual International Conference on Social Justice and the Law, at Stellenbosch University, on 11 October 2022.