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Higher education reconsidered

- Ruksana Osman

Beyond the pandemic and possibilities for new knowledge architectures.

The Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping all dimensions of life as we know it, including higher education. Its impact is dictating how we interact with others, transforming how we socialise and care about one another, restructuring business and the economy, and altering how we think about sustaining our world. The pandemic has forced the global academy to question what it means to be a university, to reconsider its role in society and its relationship with other social actors. 

Concomitantly, it has provided the academy with a moment to pause, to reflect and to propose new knowledge architectures that enable its reconfiguration in ways that advance flexible futures for all. The traditional role of higher education institutions centres on the creation of new knowledge, the development of high level and scarce skills, and the advancement of the public good.

This is against a rapidly changing technological landscape, in a world where new challenges emerge daily, and which, like the coronavirus, force change into unchartered waters. How, then, can universities be reconsidered to create social impact and to remain resilient amidst uncertainty?

This article proposes shifts in six areas – research and innovation, learning and teaching, people, transformation, partnerships and sustainability – which, coupled with strong, empathetic, visionary leadership, has the potential to develop revitalised knowledge architectures that enable the knowledge project of the academy to prosper.

The coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent national lockdowns exacerbated Africa’s already dire socio-economic challenges, including unemployment, poverty, inequality, the digital divide, corruption and the disproportionate share of diseases, amongst others. It brought to the fore the opportunities that exist on the continent, including Africa’s demographic advantage, its youth bulge and its ability to manage diseases.

The pandemic also underscored the important role of universities in conducting research, developing vaccines and potential treatments, influencing policy decisions, documenting the disease, adapting pedagogies for remote teaching and learning, and producing personal protective equipment for those serving on the frontline. It brought to light the capabilities of the academy to create quality knowledge whilst saving lives. 

Covid-19 has paved the way for African universities to lead from the front on local issues whilst tackling global challenges head-on; ensured that the knowledge project supports a multiplicity of voices, methods and framings; and forged inclusive communities of scholars across the world.

Going forward, universities will also have to adopt an ecological ethos which values the interconnections between knowledge forms; draws strength from diverse ways to produce and disseminate knowledge; takes environmental and financial sustainability seriously and values people. Strategic and agile leadership, coupled with demonstrable shifts in the areas mapped later, may be the coordinates for reconsidering higher education.

Universities and education |

Research and innovation

The response of universities to the coronavirus pandemic has repositioned higher education institutions as valuable knowledge generators. It has provided an opportunity to stimulate discovery research, including new clinical studies; to apply research in the domains of education through remote emergency teaching and online learning; to develop new scientific models in big data, development economics, bioinformatics and health economics; and to study the impact of the coronavirus through the humanities and social sciences, amongst others. It has entrenched the importance of evidence-based research, even though there has been a tendency to default to a health sciences approach based on mathematical modelling.

Universities may have missed a chance for transdisciplinary explorations that embody a multiplicity of perspectives, which are readily available in their midst. Universities should question if they have harnessed the opportunities to conduct more inter-, trans- and multidisciplinary research that demonstrate social solidarity in action.

The time is ripe for universities to reconsider their research horizons and to reflect on whether they are producing enough research with impact. In an environment where health inequality is growing, where there is greater social fragmentation, and gender-based harm and systemic racism is on the rise, a new research framework which balances large quantities of high-quality scholarship with impact is essential as is moving beyond measuring the impact of research by citation numbers and global ranking.

The new framework should include the rapid dissemination of knowledge, including publishing in quality open access journals and knowledge generation that encompasses training for innovation and entrepreneurship. It should nurture the next generation of scholars, entrench integrity and ethics, and be responsive to environmental changes.

Beyond the knowledge pipeline, this will require formally integrating the intellectual work of postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students as knowledge producers in their own right. It is also important to map the research–policy– practice nexus and to ensure that intellectual labour is maximally translated into benefits for Africa and the world.

Global research alliances will have to work in concert towards deliberative, integrated goals rather than in ad hoc, often competitive and reactive ways, as is often the case.

The project of learning and teaching

As a response to the pandemic, universities globally have implemented emergency remote learning and teaching to rescue the academic year. Contact universities have had to repackage content, resolve issues related to data and devices, and digitise quality education.

The pandemic may have disrupted and displaced current orthodoxies around teaching and learning, which provides an opportunity to develop a new educative focus to fundamentally reshape the relationship between teacher, student and content, and the academy and society more broadly.

The emergency response to the pandemic has highlighted technology and digital inequality but has also presented opportunities to explore penetrable boundaries between contact, online and distance teaching and learning and the possibilities that this permeability allows. 

Universities will need more time to explore the implications of online as a mode for engagement, while being aware of the limits and potentials for screen-based reasoning and thoughtfulness. When confronting new situations, good teaching enables peer engagement in class or remotely, so students gain different perspectives on issues in order to find solutions. Pedagogy that brings a diverse set of learning approaches to bear on transdisciplinary issues or ideas under discussion or study is experienced as the norm. Groups of students exchanging their views, integrating their experiences, and imagining different and flexible futures could be the basis for truly innovative thinking that is sparked by creative experimentation.


The pandemic and its disruptive nature should provoke focussed engagements on the possibilities of new knowledge architectures where students are integral producers of knowledge. Universities would need to explore thinking in communal and experiential ways and shift knowledge so that it can occupy multiple spaces at the same time. 

Scholars should be able to evaluate and distill information and knowledge from multiple sources, have the capacity to think critically and be empowered to live ethical and socially responsible lives. They must share a multiplicity of voices with people across the world, enjoy access to new global publics and actively participate in the public sphere.

This happens when universities equip students at the undergraduate level with skills that will enable them to work at the cutting edge of disciplines and pursue a postgraduate trajectory that pushes the boundaries of their disciplines in ways that will deepen their academic and professional knowledge.

The pandemic has redistribute the knowledge economy in such a way that students can be sitting in a virtual class with students from other universities and academics from two universities can co-teach a course from completely different locations. The use of space and time has been reshaped fundamentally. Modern technology has also allowed us to extend our reach during this pandemic to reshape north–south knowledge relations in ways that were not previously possible, providing at once an opportunity for African universities to leverage their epistemic and physical location to advance and strengthen the knowledge project of the global academy.

For students, universities will need to be repaired so that they become aspirational sites that address their academic, health and wellness in a holistic way. Universities of the future will expand their engagement with students so as to inspire students to become active social citizens in their own spaces. It will provide an opportunity to rethink the concept of ‘graduateness’ – students who are able to think critically, who are problem-posers and problem-solvers, not only in relation to labour market priorities but also in relation to being human, vibrant, alert, caring and compassionate.

Universities will need to accelerate investments to meet the social, emotional and mental health needs of their staff members who are struggling with the stress and trauma of the pandemic and who have been isolated from colleagues and support systems for a prolonged period of time. 

Working remotely has exposed that universities are high pressure environments for all.

Diversity and inclusion

Covid-19 should provoke dialogues on higher education and inclusivity. Universities will need to engage the intersectionality of discrimination and be alive to new forms of inequality and asymmetries. They must nurture well-rounded, active, resilient citizens who will contribute towards advancing society and transforming our world for the better. Universities will need to function as places of compassion, truth and, above all, reason. These values have largely been hidden from public view, resulting in a ‘narrowing’ of the ways in which higher education is understood.

An interdependent relationship exists between the diversity of people, knowledge, ideas and the curriculum, and future universities should be poised to drive social transformation both within and beyond the institution.

Transformation is critical because difference is central to the academic mission of any university, and diversity and inclusion are ambitions worth pursuing.

Building mutually beneficial and strategic partnerships 

Future-facing universities will need to steward, maintain and cultivate strategic partnerships in an intentional way at the local, continental and global level. Continental networks and alliances need to be expanded based on common strengths, similar values and thematic areas.

The post-Covid-19 environment proffers opportunities for emerging alliances, strategic research partnerships, at all levels. It has levelled the playing field to a certain extent – universities across the globe face common challenges, some sharper in one place and less in another. African universities need to position themselves as generators of global knowledge and seize these opportunities as the world reframes itself. 


This is a fundamental pillar on which all other areas are reliant. It means thinking beyond a post-Covid-19 future and includes optimising statutory income, activating new income through digitisation and innovation, securing third stream income and enhancing efficiencies and operations.

This includes cost replacement strategies, better and efficient use of resources, leveraging technology to innovate and reform administrative systems, and establishing cross-functional literacy and multidisciplinary teams in the administration of universities. More importantly, it means creating a culture of sustainability that pervades all aspects of work and treats sustainability as an intergenerational question, always knowing that how we act today, will impact those who come after us.

Leading African universities into the future

Amidst the global uncertainty inflicted by the coronavirus and the polarisation of the higher education terrain, societies are looking for alternatives to learning, educating and creating social impact. While universities have many moving parts, a shift in the six areas explored here may lay the basis for collegiality, cooperative governance and global solidarity.

These ambitions and values could be the compass as universities navigate a shared imagination of what it means to be a university in uncertain times. 

Professor Ruksana Osman is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at Wits University. This article was first published in the Issue 3 of the Wits Journal of Medicine, 2020.