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Reinventing higher education

- Beth Amato

We need to rethink higher education by asking what kind of society we want to create.

Woman and child © Curiosity

When the University of the Cape of Good Hope (now UNISA) was established as an examining body in 1873, it was modelled in the image of the University of London, and shaped by the views and desires of the Philosophical Society of South Africa.

The Society’s objective was to “promote original research and record its results, especially as concerned with the Natural History, Physical Condition, Geography, Statistics, Industrial Resources, Languages and Traditions of South Africa.” 

New ‘knowledge architectures’

Fast- forward 148 years to a country altered by immense political and social feats. No longer are lecturers and students, with their drapery and austerity, advertisements for a Rembrandt painting. Education is theoretically open to all, profound questions have been asked about the colonial-era content and format of the academy, technology has infiltrated every aspect of life, reshaping the relationship between institutions and communities, and the Covid-19 pandemic has destroyed and renewed social, political and economic pacts.

How can higher education remain relevant and impactful in an era that requires deliberate and urgent efforts to address the unprecedented upheaval caused by humankind? Professor Ruksana Osman, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, explains that the pandemic has allowed the academy to pause, reflect and propose new knowledge architectures. 

“The pandemic 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 … It brought to light the capabilities of the academy to create quality knowledge while saving lives,” she says.

Solutions from the Global South

The Consortium for Advanced Research Training (CARTA), an initiative led by the Wits School of Public Health and the African Population Health and Research Centre, aims to build a vibrant African academy to lead and implement multidisciplinary research that improves public and population health.

“Our goal is to ensure that we have an interdisciplinary, Afro-centric research community responding to regional health challenges,” says Professor Jude Igumbor, Public Health Specialist and the Focal Person for CARTA at Wits.

Igumbor notes that while African countries bear a disproportionate burden of infectious and noncommunicable diseases, less than one percent of the world’s research is produced in Africa, while investment in the capacity to do health research in African universities has been inadequate. 

CARTA, which runs a doctoral training programme, comprises eight African universities, four African research centres and northern partners. These cross-disciplinary and continent-wide initiatives are building research capacity. Igumbor adds that “contextually-focused research conducted by CARTA fellows provides evidence-based information to guide policies and decisions aimed at addressing current disease burdens and future epidemics in Africa”. 

Osman says that tackling local and global challenges requires a multiplicity of voices, methods, and framings. It must forge inclusive communities of scholars across the world. She adds that environmental and financial stability are key too, upheld by agile and visionary leadership. 

A (re)-imagined community in a thriving city

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor of Wits University, believes that resilient and robust universities are those that drive multidisciplinary collaborations, nurture budding communities of research practice across Africa, and reconstitute their images to speak to their immediate environment.

Wits University in particular has the opportunity to inform and reform the cityscape. “The University is not far removed from the grime and precarity of Joburg’s city centre and can capitalize on the many dynamic opportunities in the space – this is unique in this country. UCT is located in the wealthier suburbs, for example. We can’t be passive occupants of the inner-city. In other parts of the world, such as New York and London, the university campuses seamlessly flow into the city. Columbia University in New York is interesting because it is located in Harlem, an area that was historically precarious and crime-ridden,” says Vilakazi.

Wits University’s Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein is an example of the relationship the University has with its local context. Not only is the Precinct’s work responding to changing work and social realities, but it promotes entrepreneurship and relevant applied research. Importantly, unemployed youth are incubated and equipped with digital skills.

The University is intimately involved, through the Reimagining Braamfontein programme led by award-winning social entrepreneur Taffy Adler, with changing the south-western part of Braamfontein where the university and the urban merge. “We have between 40 000 and 50 000 young people living in the area. We must therefore make the most of this opportunity, partner with organisations and government entities that develop residential communities for students and staff, promote commercial activity, and nurture invention and innovation in the area,” he says. 

Understanding student realities

Universities were traditionally set up for those ‘gentlemen’ who could afford the cost of higher education. It was seen as a privilege. But in a country plagued by historical exclusion, and inequality and poverty, university is seen by many young people as an essential path to escaping social and economic distress. 

“The traditional university funding model – that of students being able to pay – is misaligned with our real-life context. In fact, we have many more ‘non-traditional’ students enrolling. These are women, older people, mothers, poor students and poor rural students,” says Jerome September, the Dean of Student Affairs at Wits University. 

The government-funded National Students' Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has stepped in to help poor students, but September says that universities in South Africa must focus on ensuring that students in the so-called ‘missing middle’ category are not excluded – these are students not ‘poor enough’ to qualify for NSFAS aid but not wealthy enough to afford university fees.

“We need to make funding available for these academically-deserving students and we need to find innovative ways to do this, whether it is with a low-interest government loan scheme, or through other means,” says September, adding that higher education should be seen as a public and social good. 

“When there is an educated population, there is a higher economic growth rate and a more peaceful society. In order to reinvent and fix higher education we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we want … if we want to have a democratic, safe, educated society, then we need to prioritise higher education.”

  • Beth Amato is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 12th issue, themed: #Solutions. We explore #WitsForGood solutions to the structural, political and socioeconomic challenges that persist in South Africa, and we are encouraged by astounding ‘moonshot moments’ where Witsies are advancing science, health, engineering, technology and innovation.