Collaboration across universities finds expression in a new Community of Practice on Sustainability

Published On: 18 May 2023|

The official launch and inaugural general meeting of the Higher Education Sustainability Community of Practice (HESCoP) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf) was hosted in a hybrid format from the University of Cape Town (UCT) on 12 April 2023.

Welcoming the 70-odd guests, a quarter of whom were attending in person, Professor Elelwani Ramugondo (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Transformation, Student Affairs and Social Responsiveness at UCT hailed this CoP as a necessary platform for sharing lessons, good practices, benchmarks and conceptual frameworks to guide South African universities in their quest to become more sustainable.

Professor Ramugondo acknowledged the sensitive relationship between human beings and nature, especially considering the location of UCT next to a World Heritage site rich in unique flaura and fauna. She said this relationship was underlined when the City of Cape Town faced severe water shortages around 2017 and 2018, and during the Table Mountain Fire that ravaged UCT’s much-loved Jagger Library and its unique special collections.

In response to the Jagger Library fire disaster, Professor Ramugondo said UCT had received outstanding empathy from its own campus community and communities of Cape Town, South Africa and the world, who went on to volunteer their services to the Salvage Project. In response to the drought crisis, UCT had since used empirical evidence to influence government policy and mobilised public support for water conservation. UCT had also utilised state funding to develop a comprehensive sustainable water management strategy, and to implement numerous water savings projects across its campuses.

“It is the same spirit that drives the efforts of this community of practice, drawing together knowledge and experience from around South Africa to help solve our greatest sustainability challenges,” she said.

Moving on to cite the Washington Post’s 2021 report that projected explosive population growth in Africa by the end of this century, Professor Ramugondo said the HESCoP represented an opportunity to collaborate and share experiences. “As African universities, we have a responsibility to graduate students and deliver research that can serve this continent and this country… and to do so in a positive and uplifting manner.”

USAf’s Chairperson of the Funding Strategy Group (FSG), Professor Tawana Kupe (left), mentioned Sustainability as one element in USAf’s three-pronged strategic outlook until 2026, alongside Students and Engagement. “We give expression to it through our cross-cutting strategy groups and specialist communities of practice.” He echoed Professor Ramugondo’s sentiments on collaboration when he added that “within the context of our roles in advocacy, influencing policy and shared learning, our effectiveness is underpinned by the extent to which we function together within and across this tiered architecture, in a coherent and integrated way.”

Professor Kupe said both the FSG and the HESCoP were particularly interesting in that their agenda was cross-cutting in the extent to which they both influenced the content and flavour of work in other entities of USAf. The FSG, for one, was pursuing adequate financial resourcing of universities to enable them to fulfil their core functions of teaching and learning, research and community engagement. The FSG was also focused on adequate and sustainable student funding for their growing participation in higher education as stipulated in South Africa’s National Development Plan.

According to their Terms of Reference, the HESCoP will enjoy a close working inter-relationship with USAf’s Funding Strategy Group (FSG). As such, the CoP will be a standing agenda point at every FSG meeting as it reports on any strategic matters relating to its operations. As also articulated in their Terms of Reference, the HESCoP will focus on 12 of the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals that are applicable to South African higher education institutions. These are:

  • SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing)
  • SDG 4 (Quality Education)
  • SDG 5 (Gender Equality)
  • SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation)
  • SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy)
  • SDG 8 (Decent Work)
  • SDG 10 (Reduced Inequality)
  • SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities)
  • SDG 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production)
  • SDG 13 (Climate Action)
  • SDG 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions)
  • SDG 17 (Partnerships on the SDGs).

While commending the HESCoP members for their foresight on collaboration and transdisciplinarity, Professor Kupe reiterated the importance of hardwiring sustainability considerations into the thinking of all USAf groups towards advocacy and influence. “Sustainable development goes hand in hand with complexity. It has multiple linkages and dependencies across disciplines and requires a transdisciplinary approach in dealing with the multifaceted challenges faced…. I anticipate that this approach will continue to be used to great effect as the CoP engages with other entities within USAf.”

He also praised the HESCoP for having already identified the need to advance the sustainability agenda alongside the important roles that universities need to play. Professor Kupe went on to describe the role of the FSG alongside four other strategy groups of USAf. Also unpacking the current priority focus areas of the FSG, Professor Kupe lauded as sound, HESCoP’s two-pronged approach to sustainability, first looking at institutional practices and stewardship to optimise resources management and to enhance environmental sustainability in universities’ footprint, and, secondly, embedding sustainability into universities’ core functions for societal impact.

The FSG Chair said he saw as the most significant opportunity for collaboration with the FSG and its close associate and CoP — the Finance Executives’ Forum — through connecting the economic and environmental domains of sustainability. He suggested introducing the idea of doing good – alongside applying innovative practices — as an economically beneficial approach to universities in the long run.

Citing South Africa’s energy crisis “which threatens our business continuity, is associated with dramatically escalating costs when emergency petrol or diesel generation capacity is installed and used, and contributes to increasing our individual carbon footprints,” Professor Kupe championed collaborative research across institutions to advance the effectiveness of renewable energy technologies. He suggested that value-creating initiatives such as a collaborative effort to reduce capital costs through economies of scale could well contribute to universities’ financial sustainability while assuring them of business continuity, economic returns from innovation, a reduced carbon footprint and reputational benefit.

“There are likely to be more opportunities, as we reflect more deeply and learn from our experiences. Central to this will be the quality and coherence of our collaborative efforts, so that we leverage our different roles, capabilities and areas of focus to create multiple streams of value,” Professor Kupe concluded.

HESCoP will enjoy USAf’s secretariat services support

USAf’s Director of Operations and Sector Support, Mr Mahlubi Mabizela (right), also attended this inauguration event. As the ultimate convenor of all USAf groups and engagement platforms, Mr Mabizela assured the HESCoP members that USAf, fully supportive of their agenda, was ready to extend secretariat services to this group, that were being enjoyed by USAf’s 10 other communities of practice.

Echoing the view that sustainability concerned itself with far more than the environment to include funding, curriculum relevance, impact and technological advancements, Mabizela said doing justice to all of these concerns required resources. He therefore commended HESCoP for thinking creatively about resources planning, acquisition and distribution that ensured the sector’s health and continuity.

While acknowledging that this CoP could have easily reported to any of the other USAf strategy groups because of its relevance across the board, Mabizela said the challenge of making a success of this CoP’s work lay in ensuring that the HESCoP agenda filtered through all relevant USAf operations while permeating the system meaningfully, and without unnecessary duplication of efforts.

He said he particularly looked forward to seeing the Group’s policy advisories. To that end, he expressed a wish to see the HESCoP collaborating with other USAf structures in addressing issues of equity and transformation, and ensuring sustainable transformation of the higher education sector, and the broader society.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication, and Nqobile Tembe is a contracted Communication Consultant.