Challenges facing the world’s universities

Published On: 17 November 2022|

The underfunding of higher education and the resulting lack of capacity; universities becoming more reluctant to collaborate due to geopolitical shifts and the imbalance between the Global South and the Global North are just some of the global, national and regional challenges facing universities today.

This is according to five leading academics who took part in the session titled Trends in Global and Regional Contexts of Universities, of the HELM Summit 2022 that wound up yesterday, online. The summit was organised by Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme, in collaboration with the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a representative association of Deans of Arts and Sciences in the United States of America.

The five scholars share their views below.

Professor Sibongile Muthwa

Chair of the USAf Board and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University

“The South African higher education system is one of the preeminent entities in the democratisation of South Africa. It has ensured that our democracy fulfils its mission of catalysing the rights and promises for equality and inclusion for the majority of South Africans. It has done a great deal and advanced democracy while making sure that different levels of society and people from all walks of life have been enabled to access and transition to better lives for themselves and their families and to contribute to the economy.

“The biggest challenge is the underfunding of the higher education system. Government has done a great deal in the past few years to help students access higher education following the #Fees Must Fall campaign. However, we remain challenged – compared to other countries of our size – when it comes to the funding of research and innovation. Universities in this country still remain unequal as a result of how they were resourced in the past and their own history.

“Government is working hard to make sure that we evolve a much more equitable funding model of the higher education system in South Africa so that all universities, irrespective of their type, is funded according to their needs.”

Professor Ahmed Bawa

Former USAf CEO and now Professor of Higher Education, University of Johannesburg

“The first challenge is the shifting boundary conditions of truth. Universities are in the business of producing experts, knowledge & information and policy advice. Truth shifting is largely due to a growth in anti-intellectualism and a growth in populism where people choose what they want to believe. This has enormous implications for the way in which universities function and the way in which they relate more broadly to society.

“The second one concerns the large geopolitical shifts that are taking place. There was a moment in time with the end of the Cold War which saw an impetus towards a global approach to higher education. With the on-going tensions around the world, this has been reversed. However, it remains imperative that universities develop a ‘global commons of knowledge and scholars’. There is a critical need for us to work together. And yet you hear of universities that are shutting doors to certain people because they are deemed to be agents of enemy states.

“A few years ago, if you had asked where the centre of gravity of the world’s knowledge enterprise was, it would have been quite easy to say that it’s somewhere in the mid north Atlantic. That has shifted to Asia.

“The production of knowledge is changing, which has enormous implications for the future of universities and their administrations. We also have to examine the impact of technology on higher education and teaching, which we saw during CoViD-19, and which continues in the research fields.

“There are challenges facing universities in the Global South in particular; about freeing themselves from the dominance of the paradigms and the knowledge projects that have shaped the Global North. Decolonisation has to be seen, not as an end point but as a process. We need to shift towards new approaches in knowledge production. It’s also a social justice issue as, during apartheid, there was enormous pressure on indigenous knowledge systems which were suppressed.

“We have to examine the impact of the social movements that are occurring both locally and globally – from climate reform to those for racial and gender justice. What do these mean for universities? We have to deal with complexity. What came out of Fees Must Fall, Rhodes Must Fall and the global pandemic, is the idea that universities have to advocate for social justice as they think about their future role in society.”

Professor Catherine Odora Hoppers

Professor Extraordinarius at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and founder and director of the Global Institute for Applied Governance in Science, Knowledge Systems and Innovations (Uganda)

“The academic architecture which underpins higher education is borrowed, and not grounded. Our philosophies and values should underpin every learning agenda. [At present] it doesn’t have multifaceted ethics of living; only silos marked by discipline. We are stuck in the Western way of seeing and living. Multi- and trans-disciplinarity would bring us a changed mindset.

“It raises questions about leadership in context and engages with existing practices in order to better diagnose past and ongoing blockages and makes bold propositions about the future. It encourages a change of attitude towards knowledge itself, towards the very tools of cognition that we’ve used to define our reality.

“The post Galilean development of human thought remains largely a product of the West, especially of Europe. The knowledge production enterprise, which emanates from this epistemological position, leaves us with many areas of inquiry. They have to be considered relevant to development in non-Western societies including the monopoly control over concepts, practices and images. Most disciplines are stuck with a coded discourse and practices, which fail to explain social changes that are taking place in African society.

“In South Africa, it was hoped that the transition from apartheid to democracy would boost higher education and raise new questions and possibilities and allow us to examine old problems from a new angle, to spot creative imagination and mark real advances in science and philosophy. We need to re-examine the norms and practices in academia, and its relationship to African society. We need a conceptualisation of science, philosophy and cultural common sense. We need to uncover and test the multiple layers of sedimented assumptions about Africa.”

Dr Minu Ipe

Vice-Chairperson and Managing Director of the University Design Institute, Arizona State University (US)

“There is a growing demand for higher education and the lack of capacity in the current system. Some estimates say that by 2040, we will see a 68% growth in demand for higher education and we don’t have the capacity in the system to meet that demand right now.

“We also have to look at the quality of tertiary education. Are we adequately preparing our students for jobs and careers? Some estimates indicate that 65% of students graduating from high school may have jobs and careers that don’t exist today. So how are we preparing our students, not just for known jobs and employment, but for jobs that may be coming in the future?

“There’s a whole segment of society that higher education institutions are not able to address and there is a gap. These are learners – who have graduated from university or who may have never gone to university – who need help with upskilling, retooling and advancing their careers.

“We also have to examine the broader issues of health, climate, environment and social issues that require universities to help provide solutions through research. Another challenge is the existing economic models with tertiary education underfunded in many instances.

“We have to recognise that today’s basic model of higher education was built for a different era and environment. It is unfortunate that many universities, especially in developing economies, are aspiring to the current models, the Western models, which don’t meet the needs of our time.

“We have an opportunity to reimagine and rethink what higher education can and should be. For instance, why should the university be seen as a brick-and-mortar place where people go to study? Why can’t a university meet people where they are? We need to leverage technology in creative ways, but also in ethical ways, to increase access to rethink how we teach, rethink how students learn and be more efficient in our processes.

“Why do we look predominantly at high school graduates who want to go to university? We could reframe that to include learners at any point in their lives. We need to create new designs for learning and not just use what we have inherited from the past. So, why should an undergraduate degree take four years? Why should every degree look exactly the same? Why can’t universities offer more than just degree programmes?

“How might we leverage partnerships with private sector organisations to improve our curricula to create better opportunities for our students to allow us to be more entrepreneurial and generate some revenue for institutions of higher education? How can universities take greater responsibility for issues facing their local communities? We also need to create collaborative models with universities in our regions, in our countries and around the globe that allow us to have greater impact for our societies.”

Professor Hans de Wit

Distinguished Fellow at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College (US) and the recipient of the Noam Chomsky Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021

“One of main issues facing education systems everywhere is the lack of funding which puts us under enormous pressure. It leads to increasing exclusivity for those who aspire to enter into the higher education space. We need to start looking for ways to solve the major problems our planet has – from the results of the pandemic to climate change and geopolitical tensions to nationalism, populism and racism. All of these have a serious impact on higher education.

“There’s an increasing inequality in accessing higher education, between the different types of institutions and the quality of education they provide and between countries, in particular between the Global South and the Global North. Asia, particularly China, is the rising player in the field. This impacts on academic cooperation in the sense that we are facing all kinds of tensions between national security issues.

“It is important that we continue to work together in a global context. We need to keep communication channels open. Isolation is not a solution but a major concern for higher education institutions. Only when we work together, can we address the problems that our planet faces. It’s very important that the Global South is considered as an equal partner and that there’s not the dominance of the Western higher education community or the increasing power of countries like China. Africa is important enough to take a leading role together with the rest of the world.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.