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Our universities must join the new global academia

- Adam Habib

My annual return to South Africa for the summer holidays has at one level been depressing.

The ruling party is chaotic, corrupt and has lost any sense of morality or ethics, government is at best incompetent and at worse treasonously untrustworthy, SOEs have all but collapsed, the energy infrastructure is fast disintegrating, and the water and sanitation systems are not far behind. There are some silver linings, SARS is in a turnaround from the moribund status it was deliberately plunged into, some legal prosecutions around state capture are now coming into play, a few local administrations do function satisfactorily, especially in the western cape, and the top end universities continue to perform way beyond their peers in the developing world.

When some activists and commentators make easy criticisms of universities like Wits, and the decisions that brought the institution to where it is, my common retort is to ask them to consider why Wits University is one of the few public institutions continuing to perform in a city and country when the vast majority of public institutions have all but collapsed. This response is not simply facetious. It’s informed by a firm belief that Wits University is where it is because its leadership, supported by its governing council, has the courage to stare down the politicians and internal and external political stakeholders and remain focussed on their fundamental mandate of teaching, learning, and research. Transformation is a goal it is committed to, but its institutional purpose - teaching and research - is never made subservient to it. Instead, Transformation is always aligned to is teaching and research needs. Excellence and meritocracy are always prioritised even though they are deployed to the social goals encapsulated in our constitution.

Wits University is not the only successful institutional player. There are few such universities in South Africa, but they are all under assault by either political chauvinist lobbies or naive non-pragmatic activists of one kind or another. They have to be protected and their leadership have to hold their nerve, stare down the political lobbies and focus on their core purpose. This purpose - teaching, research and enabling public deliberation - has to be imagined in magnanimous global terms. This is because all of our contemporary challenges - climate change, pandemics, inequality, social and political polarisation - are transnational in character and cannot be resolved in national terms. They require both the interactions of different knowledge systems to enable the development of contextually grounded solutions, and human and institutional capabilities dispersed across the world.

Both imperatives require a re-imagination of higher education. Universally applicable solutions require not only world class technologies but also an understanding of how they are deployed in specific contexts. This necessitates an interdisciplinary understanding and local knowledge; two elements that require equitable global institutional partnerships that enable transnational higher education programmes involving co-curriculation, co-teaching and co-accreditation. This will enable a learning that is both scientifically grounded and contextually relevant. It will also often take a blended form - a mix of online and face to face learning experiences - now widely practised in all universities as we collectively learnt to manage the COVID fallout.

These equitable global institutional partnerships are also necessary for enabling the development of institutional capacities and human capabilities around the world. This is under threat because of the brain drain from South Africa and across the developing world facilitated both by the character of the traditional global partnerships and the push factor resulting from the incompetence and corruption of governments in these countries who compromise living standards to the point where citizens are incentivised to leave and find a better life elsewhere. University partnerships across the North-South divide and transnational education along the lines suggested above can address both imperatives by developing universally relevant and contextually grounded curriculum, building human capabilities through the training of a larger cohort of people and mitigating the incentives to relocate elsewhere for a globally competitive education.

This re-imagination of higher education is not without its challenges. The business model of higher education in much of the western world does not facilitate such equitable global partnerships, and neither does the nationally and racially chauvinist politics that dominates globally. But even here there is a silver lining. The recent AU-EU summit this past year committed both continents to facilitate the development of Africa-Europe research and postgraduate training partnerships along the lines suggested above. Similarly, SOAS, University of London where I am currently located, has just developed a doctoral program in Economics with Wits University where students are co-supervised by academics from both institutions under a new business model with a single fee for all students from any part of the world. Any surplus earned on the program is equally shared between both universities. These initiatives are institutional seedlings of hope which if broadened and taken to scale can pioneer a reimagined higher education system fit for purpose for the 21st century.

It is important that South African universities are fully immersed in these global experiments to reimagine higher education. They of course need to be responsive to local challenges and needs, but they also must keep a global and cosmopolitan vision and orientation and not succumb to the nationally chauvinist agenda of politicians who are trying to distract from their personal and collective failures. Now more than ever South Africa must realise that its future can only lie in a locally responsive, socially just, globally connected world.

Adam Habib is Director of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is the former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University. This article was published in TimesLive/Sunday Times.