Co-construction of knowledge is central to an engaged university

Published On: 27 October 2021|

The second speaker, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, who is the Chair of Universities South Africa’s Transformation Strategy Group and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa, premised her talk on the sector’s unprecedented pressures. She looked beyond funding issues into the dynamics of contextuality and globally resonant education.

LenkaBula (above) argued that to tackle the notion of an engaged university, the higher education system needs to be assessed for its own validity.

“Is it enabling for students, staff or those who are in the pursuit of knowledge, as we are often told in transformative impulse for self, family, the community, society but also the global agenda? What criteria are necessary for evaluating impact as well as the engagement?” She referred to criteria integral to transformation and engaged scholarship – that would be evident in the sustainable autonomy of the knowledge systems themselves, but also the organisation of institutions of higher education.

“How do we deal with issues of gender but also the inclusion of students living with disability as well as those who are in the LGBTQIA community? Are they embraced, or do they see themselves in the curricula that they are learning, or do they see themselves as aliens in the knowledge arena?”

These were the questions she posed to the audience as the engaged university and transformation discourse takes centre-stage in the sector.

Moving on, Professor LenkaBula touched on the context of digitalisation — South Africa and its political geospatial and economic location — as a consumer of digital systems and not necessarily an owner. She alerted the audience to the implications of these on The Engaged University.

“Is the engaged university one in the forefront of constructing knowledge or co-constructing, inventing knowledge, which is shared, developed, optimised in the multiplicity of sectors within society, or is it one which is embroiled with digitalisation systems that it has to buy — which it has no control of in the teaching and learning processes?”

She also referred to the overwhelming commodifying and disruptive thrust of digitalisation that the sector has had to enforce, particularly in the context of CoViD-19. She referred to the digital systems; online platforms, artificial intelligence, and multiplicities of other educational digital resources that tend to be owned or located within the global north. She was problematising zero ownership of these inventions that place institutions at the mercy of developers with limited knowledge of the South African context.

“For me, it has become crystal clear that as members of universities epistemic communities, we must be engaged more than ever; but it is also clear that the old order has to give to new paradigms.

“This is particularly true because whilst the old paradigms may have been just and committed to the public good, the new transformations seem to be at the centre of the commodification of knowledge, including the dependency on the institutional and ICT infrastructures that are not necessarily available for the global south.”

She borrowed from Antonio Gramsci, a Brazilian scholar, who stated that education is dead if it does not make the principle of justice effective for all and in the plural.

“The danger is that the weaker sections of society will never see the ability or opportunities of education as that which invites their intellectual agency in contributing to the changes in society within which they live,” she said, calling for a move from being consumers to becoming co-constructors or collaborating in the knowledge arena.

In particular, she championed the notion of the creative spirit that seeks alternatives to ensure that the educational relationship is not reflected strictly on the scholastic relationship but exists for every individual throughout society.

Referencing Gramsci again, she said education at all points must be revolutionary, transformative, and enabling of the agency of participants to co-construct futures through their participation as moral agents in the learning arena. LenkaBula said she was of the view that the sector cannot discuss engaged universities and scholarship without understanding colonial throttles over the knowledge systems within the context of African universities or the post-school education system.

“The idea is never to be subaltern. In the post-colonial discourse, the idea is never to be marginal or to be rendered marginal. It is to claim voice, participation and co-constructing of knowledge, innovation, inventions, civilisation, and ideas that promote dignity; ideas that are humanising. To ensure that knowledge is not limited to a few and that the knowledge systems produced by universities are relevant for the knowledge economy and for transforming societies.”

In essence, she said an engaged and transformed university is gender-inclusive and gives a platform to people living with disabilities. A university that ensures the dialogue between natural sciences and social sciences, their pedagogies not epistemological resonance — make sense and meaning for society.

In conclusion, she said: “Engaged scholars and engaged universities will not exist if they do not enable and facilitate the pursuit of wisdom as the philosophers tell us; the pursuit for humanising, dignified, inventive environments that allow people to come as they are, to contribute to the knowledge systems, the knowledge arena in the contextual environments within which they exist, whilst as the same time, aspiring to see their knowledge systems finding global footprint.”

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted by Universities South Africa.