Creating Engaged, Student-centred and Responsive Universities

Published On: 11 November 2021|

Professor Puleng Lenka Bula, Chairperson of the Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa, reported that she had found the three TSG breakaway sessions exciting. The sessions had yielded scholarly insights which were themselves transformative of knowledge systems within the university sector. After acknowledging all the chairs, presenters, and participants in these sessions she went on to report on what had transpired in the three sittings sub-themed The Engaged University and Transformation, Student-Centred Universities and The Responsive University, respectively.

Professor Lenka Bula said the first session on The Engaged University and Transformation had acknowledged the shifts witnessed within the context of CoViD-19, but also the advances in the digitalisation systems which were occasioning new ways of interfacing as universities. Delegates had acknowledged the critical role of the university as the custodian and the core construction environment for knowledge, teaching and learning, research and innovation and as well as the global and knowledge impact.

During the Student-Centred Universities breakaway, delegates had bemoaned the alienation of students in the curricular environments. Her report would enunciate on these matters while also relaying the important questions that had arisen from The Responsive University session, which required further consideration across the sector if the idea of a responsive university was to be realised.

The Engaged University and Transformation

The key critical discussions that had ensued in the first session were around the idea of a university that embodies students as co-constructors of the knowledge trajectories that are embedded within the university system. Matters of co-governance, co-participation and co-construction were central and relevant to both the core academic agenda and the core curricular agenda. According to Professor Lenka Bula, the latter is about entwining what happens within the laboratory, the classroom (whether physical of virtual) and the context within which the learning takes place. The questions around the deep professionalisation of the core curricular environments became an important imperative signaled by, amongst others, exclusivity that was highlighted as an area of concern within the university.

Delegates had conceptualised the engaged university as not just a site of learning but also of translating ideas and of ensuring that a connection was made between the aesthetic, philosophic and curriculum pedagogies and other aspects of the learning programme. They had emphasised the idea of education that is ethical, empathetic and engages students in such a way that they do not only absorb subject matter in their core disciplines, but also creates a humanising environment that enables them to flourish as students, alongside the academy. Participants in this session had also brought up the context of decoloniality — the idea of Africanising knowledge while ensuring that African knowledge systems, civilisations and intellectuals interface with the global knowledge systems and find support and resonance within the global arena.

The engaged university was also examined within the context of the shift towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitalisation. The idea of technology as enabling or leveraging an engaged university emerged as an important point of discussion. The key intellectual and scientific contradictions that were identified as impediments to an engaged university concerned the ownership of global platforms that are used for teaching and the 4IR typologies within the South African context. Delegates felt that, in the main, universities in the global south are currently engaging with the global digitalisation systems as consumers, not inventors or innovators of the systems that leverage the engaged university. They therefore deemed it important for USAf to reflect around these aspects of transformation – especially the consumer status as well as the prejudicial aspects associated with the algorithms, artificial intelligence and predictive systems that sometimes shape transformation discourses. A view was shared that these technologies all too often promote marginalisation, alienation, especially within the context of disability, geographic locations and languages – especially African languages.

Other aspects that were raised, which dovetailed with the outtakes reported from the Funding Strategy Group, were around the importance of adequately financing and funding university systems.

The idea of creating contextually relevant and globally competitive institutions in partnership with universities in other environments such as Asia, Europe, Americas and Australia had also come up — with emphasis on exposing South Africa’s students and academics to other systems. This was especially looking to negate the effects of apartheid on excluded and marginalised scholarship and knowledge systems.

Finally, Professor Lenka Bula drew the attention of the plenary to the confusion she said was apparent in some quarters in the system over the concept of transformation and issues of race. “This was raised as an important area that requires attention.”

Student-centred Universities

On knowledge creation, delegates had emphasised the importance of recognising students’ ability to contribute to knowledge creation by bringing their own lived experiences to universities lecture halls. Delegates encouraged knowledge systems that position the students, the scientific agenda, scientific diplomacy and pedagogies at the centre of the process. Knowledge co-creation must ensure that learning, curriculum, of lived and concrete experiences of students within and outside of the university becomes a rallying point for enhancing engaged scholarship within and outside a university system.

Responsive University

In this session, Professor Lenka Bula said the gathering considered research, productivity, and the diversity of research approaches as important areas of thinking through engaged scholarship. Some of the questions that arose were: What is it that we’re good at; What do we do in the context of shifts and changes – do we remain archaic, dormant OR do we become agile? Do we limit ourselves to just wanting to be seen mimicking the global or pro-American systems? The TSG Chair said this was an important area to emphasise because it related to a question that students had raised in the discussion: Do we create decolonial African intellectuals, African knowledge systems to respond to Euro-American civilisations OR do we create contextually relevant knowledge systems that interface with Euro-American knowledge systems to re-invent and to become responsive?

Still on responsiveness, Professor Lenka Bula posed another question to the plenary: How do we think around intersectionality as an important idea of leveraging an engaged university without creating the dissonances between knowledge systems and the role of the university within the context within which it exists? She said this was somewhat related to global knowledge and questions of rankings, ratings and global impact. She asked: Are the rankings enabling us to see the roles of universities in socio-economic, political and ecological transformation, OR are they just criteria that are limited to outputs in terms of books, publications and research, and what is the role of rankings on universities’ impact on global engagement and knowledge?

As she wrapped up, Professor Lenka Bula said another suggestion was made, that it would be important, in creating the responsive university, to connect scientific innovation, contextual agility and knowledge creation within the context of the national development plan imperatives and Africa Agenda 2063 priorities, to corresponding global development discussions. She said the idea was to ensure that “universities in Africa are not just located in Africa but also advance themselves as sites of excellence, knowledge dissemination and inventive approaches in their aesthetics formation but also in the diversity of students and staff that they embody.”

‘Mateboho Green, the writer, is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.