Climate change masters: Testament to academic collaboration

The importance of collaborative work between African higher education institutions, university networks and regional and international organisations and communities was underscored during the last in a series of discussions about the masters programme in climate change and sustainable development (CCSD) for Southern Africa.

The workshop focused on lessons learned during the development of the curriculum framework, including collaboration in a virtual environment, the need for transdisciplinary competencies and the importance of engagement between academic and non-academic communities in response to specific African challenges.

The project was spearheaded by the Intra-ACP Global Climate Change Alliance Plus, administered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), funded by the European Union and carried out by the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA).

At least 50 members of the academic community contributed towards the development of the climate change programme, which was designed to enhance sustainable development in SADC member states and find complementarity between regional and national strategies in order to generate appropriate solutions to climate change-related challenges.

The two-year project involved a curriculum review of the current Southern Africa masters curriculum, a series of regional capacity development workshops on curriculum innovation, knowledge co-production and climate change action. Mentorship and support to network members and universities in curriculum development and the delivery of short courses were also conducted.

During his opening remarks at the event in May, Professor Martin Oosthuizen, the executive director of SARUA, mentioned that the conference marked the end of a constructive and vibrant two years of regional collaboration around the climate change programme and highlighted that one of the key takeaways from the programme was the urgent need for a transdisciplinary and collaborative approach for the SADC region to effectively address climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“This closing conference marks a watershed moment for SARUA and it symbolises the fact that regional collaboration really does work. It is a testimony of what we can achieve in our region when we come together and share our expertise and knowledge to develop education and training opportunities and to contribute to science and innovation activities that make a difference to the full spectrum of our region’s needs, whether they be social, economical or environmental.

“It is also an affirmation that, at SARUA, we are making good on our overarching strategic goal of being a regional representative and dynamic membership organisation that reflects and serves the needs of all higher education institutions in our region and that builds the capacity of our higher education sector to make a positive impact on our regional developmental needs,” he stated.

Collaboration in the virtual environment

At least 20 contributors from the academic community also shared their insights and perspectives during the round-table discussion, including lessons learned from working together in the virtual environment during the curriculum development phase.

Keatle Tlhalerwa, a lecturer in the department of environmental sciences at the University of Botswana (UB), said that collaborating in the virtual environment presented possibilities for the expansion of knowledge and learning from other academic experts in related fields, despite the constraints experienced with connectivity and lack of equipment skills.

Dr Michael Nkuba, a doctoral graduate at UB and a research scholar in the department of environmental sciences, added that the curriculum development process allowed him an opportunity to appreciate the processes involved in building academic programmes at a masters degree level, from developing learning themes and outcomes to assessment strategies and criteria.

He noted that indigenous knowledge systems became an important aspect of the curriculum- building process as they aimed to draw in different sources of knowledge, particularly those from various local communities affected by climate change in the region.

Dr Nomazile Chicho, a lecturer at UB, said that working within the virtual platform allowed the team to engage with a larger audience of experts, including facilitators and developers of specific modules from various institutions across the SADC.

“Through virtual collaboration, academics working on the masters programme were able to use a consultative approach, which was inclusive and involved students, industry and academic experts in the climate change fields,” she said.

“Virtual collaboration gave us the opportunity to explore different views and perspectives, and to contextualise the curriculum because we were able to cover countries affected by climate change in different ways.”

Innovative approaches required

According to Rene Pellissier, the programme manager of the climate change programme at SARUA, there were three urgent calls which justified the need for a climate change programme for higher education institutions within the African context.

“The first urgent call to action is the continued growth in technology, because that requires us to take a different view of life and of higher education, in particular. It means that the way in which we build capacity and challenge our students will have to be reviewed based on the continuous changes in, specifically, artificial intelligence.”

She stated that the second call was due to population growth in the world, and the important fact that Africa has the highest rate of population growth and faces the imminent challenge of population growth against diminishing resource production.

“The third call of action is the positive note of climate balance, climate optimism but, mostly, climate depression. We talk about mitigation, adaptation and risk.

“The overall objective of the climate change programme was, therefore, to build a network of universities that would help engage in climate change negotiations and conduct climate change policy analysis. That is the highest level where research can inform policy-making,” she noted.

This also entailed building a network of universities that would contribute to capacity development and developing a digital ecosystem to support the materials of the masters programme in climate change and sustainable development.

An exchange of knowledge is key

Dr Marianne Bester, a curriculum advisor at Stellenbosch University, encouraged students to engage with complex societal problems that go beyond the boundaries of one discipline, because this was the key to knowledge co-creation and also paved the way for problem-solving skills in the evolving field of climate change.

She implored university instructors and module developing teams at universities to rise up to the challenge and infuse transdisciplinarity into their teaching, learning and assessment strategies and to explore indigenous knowledge as tools for conserving biodiversity and other climate change action.

“It is important for students to learn to integrate different knowledge and skills they have learned in the university with indigenous knowledge developed by communities. It is this integration of these knowledges that actually results in achieving shared research goals and objectives and, therefore, addressing bigger societal challenges.

“To bring about significant change, university academics must lead the way with innovative teaching, learning and assessment practices that foster transdisciplinary thinking. It is important for university academics to model and introduce these examples to the students so that they see how it is practised in different workplace settings,” she noted.

Professor Walter Claassen, a specialist with SARUA and Dr Marinda Avenant, a senior lecturer at the University of the Free State, South Africa, echoed the same thoughts during the discussion.

Claassen stated that engagement between scientific and non-academic communities was a prerequisite in achieving a multidisciplinary approach. In addition, universities needed to embrace purpose-oriented and problem-solving collaboration to achieve transdisciplinarity.

He also stressed the importance of harnessing technology, including artificial intelligence and data science to gain new insights and perspectives within learning institutions.

“A vision from leadership relating to transdisciplinarity is absolutely essential. There must be some kind of university-wide discussion or taskforce to shift the minds. There must be an institutional understanding of what can be achieved and universities must be willing to build stronger partnerships or consortia and, for that, funding should be available,” he said.

Avenant highlighted the importance of including local contexts as well as critical and systems thinking. The use of different technical languages was also crucial in these fields.

She said: “We need to expose our students to real-life issues and exchange knowledge between academia and society.”

Capacity-building to continue

In discussing a way forward, Pellissier underlined the importance of continued capacity-building, ongoing development and updating of curriculum materials for CCSD, ongoing hosting of the climate change repository, a digital platform to store materials related to the curriculum and available to universities, and the establishment of a SARUA CCSD community of practice.

“The rationale for building capacity in the academic space is always that curriculums are not static. They continue to change. [A] curriculum must, therefore, reflect relevance, quality assurance, address specific gaps and problems, provide evidence to guide decision-making, and keep learning and teaching up to date to improve the students’ learning experience,” she said.

“The programme innovation in terms of the virtual space, the collaborative teams and the transdisciplinary nature of the design is an important feature we have achieved.

“The engagement of the higher education community and the depths of knowledge within these spaces is really valuable and to be applauded. Transdisciplinarity is almost the DNA of climate mitigation and adaptation and we need to continue building an application-based theory in climate change and what we have achieved so far,” she said.