Universities must look themselves in the transformation mirror and commit to fixing the problem — Andre Keet

Published On: 27 October 2021|

For many years, the higher education sector has been grappling with engagement and transformation. More so as institutions realised that academic pursuit, as a sole endeavour of a university, was becoming impossible to maintain. That is why the recent 2nd Higher Education Conference was raising hard questions on the role of universities in the societies in which they exist.

These were opening remarks from Professor Tyrone Pretorius (left), Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, as he introduced and set the tone for the Transformation Strategy Group’s (TSG’s) first breakaway session at the recent 2nd National Higher Education Conference.

The virtual event was a collaboration between Universities South Africa (USAf) and the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The overall conference theme was The Engaged University.

Professor Pretorius re-visited the two questions that most speakers during the opening plenary had brought up. The first was, ‘what are we good at‘ and the second, ‘what are we good for.’ He said these two questions, first coined by Stellenbosch University, and reiterated quite recently by Newcastle University’s former vice-chancellor, Professor Chris Brink, were challenging universities to begin assessing themselves through various lenses.

As Chair of the session, Professor Pretorius went on to say institutions spend more time celebrating their research and education achievements and less on what they are ‘good for.’ He said only during moments of crises, as presented by the current pandemic and past fallist movements, did universities begin to wrestle with ‘what we are good for.’

He submitted that ‘being good for‘ cannot only be triggered by moments of upheaval. Instead, it must be woven into the very fabric of the university. It should be a commitment and strategic intent, not only regarding the academy but also in a much broader societal context.

Deliberations in this breakaway session of the TSG, sub-themed The Engaged University and Transformation, were led by a panel of three speakers and four respondents.

Problematising the social transformation trajectory and research trends in higher education.

The first speaker was Professor Andre Keet (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Engagement and Transformation and Chair of Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) at the Nelson Mandela University, who drew parallels between the past and current engagement and transformation research trends, both locally and globally. He also explored how these have countered progress of both engagement and transformation in higher education.

He referenced a recent study of CriSHET called The University and its Praxis, and The Engagement and Transformation Interface, whose objective was to critically analyse the social justice transformation trajectory in South African universities and in global higher education.

Professor Keet said what informed this project were two reports by the Council on Higher Education released in 2004 and 2016, that reflected the slow pace of transformation and the sad saga of engagement in the university sector post-1994. The idea was to study South Africa’s research trends using problematic analysis, with the hope that emerging patterns would “disclose to ourselves the patterns of our work, its historical and ideological production and future projections.”

Utilising thematic keyword analyses, locally, CriSHET focused on articles and reports that combined transformation and decolonisation, on the one hand, and community engagement and responsiveness, on the other. They examined 6360 research artefacts over four and five-year timeframes between 2001 and 2021. Internationally, the study sampled 2562 articles published on the subject matter over the past five years.

In the 20 years they identified four clusters of research writing trends in South Africa. These were:
• the interface between management and diversity transformation
• the conceptual and problematic distance between transformation and engagement transformation
• the entanglement of health and well-being of engagement and management performance discourse
• engagement concerning students, community, the workplace, stakeholders and the employer.

Much later in 2016, they noticed in South Africa, increasing research focus on well-being; healthcare engagement and performance; gender; sexuality; violence; HIV/Aids; and disability. Innovation and achievement also became topical. In some way, transformation and decolonisation still formed part of the research categories. However, scholars observed a disconnect between engagement and transformation work and management and policy patterns in the sector. The former did not necessarily influence the latter.

Professor Keet pointed out that decolonisation, as a field of interest, was not visible in the two decades studied. Gender came stronger as a category of research interest than race.

Globally, transformation research trends over the past five years surfaced four themes, namely:
• information and communications technology and CoViD-19;
• leadership equity pedagogy and social justice;
• management, governance and innovation;
• transformation, decolonisation and race and language.

Engagement in transformation not a priority in South Africa’s higher education

All of this showed, according to Keet, that engagement was not a key theme in transformation studies concerning higher education. Additionally, the analysis revealed a weakness in African connections. “Our work seems to be disembodied from our continent,” he said.

He thus deduced that “these types of studies add to a crucial anthology of ourselves. A better and more accurate way of disclosing ourselves to ourselves. The objectification of ourselves within our work.”

He challenged the academics in attendance to consider such an analysis as a basis for theory, a doctoral study or even an accumulating permanent body of knowledge. “It has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critic of what we are is at one and the same time, the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us, and an experiment on the possible transcendence,” he said.

He argued that “decolonisation should start with seeing ourselves clearly.”

“Our research themes through this analysis suggest a conceptualisation of engagement and transformation as a non-existent interplay, putting the change project of the university on the backfoot from the very beginning. The trends in the research themes also say something about our emotional and effective investment in the system. And perhaps, there is a correlation between these trends and the transformation and engagement inertia in South African universities.”

He went on to say that in the case of engagement and transformation, there were sets of metrics and trends and conservative neoliberal ideas that formed a normative scheme palatable to the system and individuals in the broader sector. He said there was a benevolent, charitable and empowerment conception of engagement and excess equity compliance-driven understanding of transformation that can be justified, rationalised and normalised. According to Professor Keet, some of these conceptions are presented falsely as being progressive from a social justice’s point.

“It is perhaps these formulations that disallow a productive transformation, engagement interface,” he said in conclusion. “It is our task to fix it.”

Professor Andre Keet is an active member of USAf’s Transformation Strategy Group, some of whose priorities in the next five years include the reconstruction of institutional culture by focussing on the design of universities around our students and staff, with emphasis on residences and the curriculum and establishing a national project to theorise and to build models of universities that are seriously engaged in the local context in which they find themselves. The TSG is also concerned about the wellbeing of people with disabilities in higher education with a view to improving responses. It aims to positively influence responses to gender-based violence; and the inequalities highlighted by CoViD-19.

The TSG priorities explain the Group’s choice of sub-themes they explored in the recent conference. In addition to The Engaged University and Transformation, the TSG also dedicated two other breakaway sessions to Student-Centred Universities and The Responsive University.

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