South Africa’s universities must shed their dominant modern/colonial imaginary character to transform and become more responsive

Published On: 11 October 2021|

South Africa’s universities must shed their dominant character and orientation that is trapped in a modern/colonial imaginary, to truly transform and become more responsive to their contexts, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, Universities South Africa’s Chairperson asserted at Universities South Africa’s 2nd national Higher Education Conference that was held from 6 to 8 October.

Speaking on The Transformative, Responsive University in South Africa on the first day of this conference, Professor Muthwa (left) suggested that universities’ preoccupation with, and perpetuation of their colonial inheritances had trapped them in an orientation which continued to “reproduce old structures of inequality and produce new forms of marginalisation.” This orientation was severely delaying progress towards the kinds of transformed institutions that were envisaged in post-Apartheid policy such as the Education White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education (1997).

Professor Muthwa suggested “undoing the university as we know it,” and that the undoing be done at the engagement/transformation interface to co-create what she called the transformative, responsive African University. This would take reformulating a university driven by pursuit of social justice and “a deliberate receptiveness and openness to the knowledges of our communities and the education contributions they offer.”

She said such change presupposed “changes in internal organisation, structures, dynamics, incentives and recognition systems that allow academics to advance new ways of developing its core academic mission” of engagement.

The Engaged University

Referencing numerous scholars who have published widely on this topic, the USAf Chairperson borrowed from their descriptions to enable broad understanding of the notion of a transformative, responsive — The Engaged University.

  • Research scholars would seek to facilitate an equal exchange between academy and community, rooted in mutual partnerships that foster formal, strategic long-term collaborative arrangements. Source: Gaffikin and Morrisey (2008) cited by Cherrington et al. (2018, p.167)
  • the “civic university” is actively engaged with the wider world as well as its local community; it takes a holistic approach to engagement; it has a strong sense of place as a contributor to its unique identity as an institution; and it has a sense of purpose, understanding not just what it is good at, but what it is good for. Such a university is willing to invest in order to have impact beyond the academy; it is transparent and accountable to its stakeholders and the wider public. Sources: Goddard (2018), supported by Brink (2018)
  • The responsive university responds to societal needs and sees such alignment and positioning as its responsibility. Its responsive orientation lies in the pursuit of the Sustainability Development Goals and a raft of other continental and national developmental legislation, policies and regulations. Source: (Raman, 2014)

Professor Muthwa cited, in the South African context, that unemployment, inequality and poverty, together with environmental degradation and the social and structural mooring of discrimination are key national challenges. A responsive university, she argued, is one that responds to the needs of the communities as articulated by themselves and co-constructed with universities. “But to be able to ‘hear’ these articulations in their authenticity requires deep institutional transformation within the university and its academy,” she added. Such a university would develop a more productive capacity for responsiveness. It would also entrench ‘transformative’ praxis which “interrogates and seeks to disrupt that which is taken for granted.”

This required universities to “undo ourselves; stepping away from ourselves to see more clearly the hidden determinants that constitute the habitus of our academic selves,” Muthwa said

With reference to Bawa (2018) Muthwa suggested that universities needed to “deliberately shape themselves to address the creation of intellectual, social and physical meshes between themselves and the struggles and aspirations of their communities.” To achieve this, universities needed to be “intensely student-centred and engaged, being tightly bound to their contexts and geared towards addressing the challenges of local communities, industry, government, non-governmental organisation etc.” Bawa, A (2017).

Restoring the legitimacy of universities

Muthwa believes that the transformative, responsive university can mitigate the challenges of diminishing public trust in higher education while being “a mechanism by which we puncture the standard, conventional character and orientation of the university.
“This, however, will require:

  • acknowledging the reality of being steered by a modern-colonial imaginary that is deeply implicated in the inequalities of the local and the global, which informs, shapes and frames, as part of an ideological fabric, all of our organising concepts, principles, praxes, and engagement;
  • facing the challenges to unravel the assemblages which demand the undoing of the academic self – the psycho-affective dimensions of radical change – thereby changing the character of the university;
  • acknowledging that in order to engage with the academic self, the transformative, responsive university is rooted in an interrogating self-reflexivity that incorporates the notion of transformative change; and
  • aligning with plural conceptions of social justice [1] and not only those which have hitherto been incorporated into strategic plans and annual reports of universities.”


She also said she had seen many interventions across South Africa’s university sector that work towards these requirements. It was from those practices that she was sourcing her thoughts and arguments. “However, because we seem captured by dominant narratives of social justice that seamlessly connect with the reproduction of inequalities, I assert that more work needs to be done to develop a ‘new’, dynamic, radical social justice framework that will reflect the ideals of the transformative, responsive university in South Africa.”

Dr Thandi Lewin (above), Acting Deputy Director-General: Universities Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training, also added a perspective on The Engaged University. Quoting the late Professor Russel Botman’s foreword to the volume “Higher Education for the Public Good: views from the South” — by Brenda Leibowitz, Dr Lewin said: Higher education institutions do not occupy some mythical middle ground. They are deeply embedded in society. If they attempt to sit on the fence, they make themselves irrelevant. Society should hold institutions accountable against their contribution to the public good.” Botman goes on to say, in that Foreword: “The time has come for universities to take sides. They cannot just be players on the field- they need to pick a side. And that side should be the public good.”

Lewin then cited the study that the DHET had commissioned through the University of the Free State on Student Access to and Use of Learning Materials (SAULM) survey, which was published late in 2020. She said while student responses testified to the fact that South African institutions successfully adapted and engaged with technologies to create a new way of offering teaching and learning, academics’ responses to similar questions seemed to yield different responses. The Acting DDG said pending the publishing of findings of a survey carried out among academics to determine the impact of the pandemic on their teaching experience, concerns were documented, already, about quality and integrity of teaching and online assessment, and about the impact of significant reduction in face to face methodologies on meaningful engagement between students and students, students and staff, and staff collaboration in relation to learning and teaching.

The Acting DDG: Universities Education said while the world was moving on, and acknowledged that life might never be restored to the pre-covid state, “in thinking about the ‘engaged university’, it is also critical to reflect on the human dimension – the people in higher education and the purposes of teaching and research. We must not lose sight of this in pushing for change. Face to face engagement will not disappear and should not in a country that is still struggling to escape the dehumanisation of the past. In this sense, the engaged university must be cognisant of some of these debates.”

Question: Does the university have the courage to change from being an ivory tower and sit in society?

Professor Muthwa: The evidence we need to respond to societal challenges can be constructed better if we co-create from the position of not having all the answers — because we do not. Otherwise, inequality and poverty would not have sustained. What is advancement in knowledge if it does not improve the human condition? Consider for a moment, the possibility of turning on its head, all what we have believed to be true and paramount about the nature of the knowledge project.

Question: Is it possible to create a university within a university?

Professor Muthwa: What some of us have attempted and learned, though projects, is that it is possible to expand impact if we let into the academy, the knowledges which would otherwise remain peripheral.

The 2nd Higher Education Conference was held under the joint banners of Universities South Africa and the Council of Higher Education to facilitate rigorous debates and deliberation on pertinent higher education issues informed by the work of USAf’s strategic structures and programmes; to encourage and support solution-building among key stakeholders; to provide an opportunity for information-sharing and networking and to identify goals and concrete actions towards the advancement and achievement of The Engaged University.

It was attended by just under 2000 delegates from South Africa, the Africa region, the United States, Europe and other continents.


[1] In this view, social justice assumes a plural character that includes destructive justice, cultural justice, associational justice, all of which exhibit varied meanings on a conceptual cartography. In a very real sense, the notion of social justice is intrinsically connected to our idea of the transformative university within which these four iterative principles can find practical expressions.

‘Mateboho Green is Universities South Africa’s Manager: Corporate Communication.