Universities in South Africa need to rediscover their higher purpose

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For over two decades South African higher education has been dominated by three successive and contending waves of thinking and organisation.

They are: neo-liberal managerialism the decolonialisation of knowledge
and, most recently, the idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

By promising to “transform” higher education, each has taken centre stage at universities – or sections of them – by pledging greater value for the taxpayer (neo-liberalism); social emancipation (decolonisation); or greater access to employment (4IR).

The first wave follows Ronald Reagan’s “reform” of the Californian system which saw decreased state funding for universities. This was taken up by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her funding policies encouraged British universities to adopt business management practices. It also involved gearing degree offerings to the requirements of “the market”.

In South Africa, the second was symbolised by the March 2015 protest at University of Cape Town over the stature of Cecil John Rhodes. The movement has been marked by (sometimes violent) demands for a reform of curriculum away from the western “canon” and towards African epistemologies. Politically, it has been characterised by demands for free higher-education.

The third has been propagated by the World Economic Forum and across the world by the champions of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the digital revolution. In South Africa this wave has been promoted especially by the University of Johannesburg. This perspective holds that AI and machine-learning will dominate knowledge and knowledge-creating deep into the present century. All academic disciplines should, therefore, be geared to this end.

But there has been very little public discussion about the contradictions between the three moments.

South African higher education remains remarkably detached from society. Its loss of a social purpose can be seen as the erosion of the public and civic vitality which once fuelled the anti-apartheid struggle. Today, its mission has shrunk.

Why is there this disconnect?

The answer is simply that policies and incentives disadvantage the deep connection with the communities in which universities are located. They also emphasise peer-reviewed articles in internationally ranked journals as the measure of excellence. And they lead to a focus on educating students for high-paying jobs. They have little to do with positioning the welfare of society at the core of their scholarship, teaching, and public connections.

Put differently, higher education in the country doesn’t fulfil its civic potential. It has no real social purpose.

There are contrasting examples internationally. For instance, Tokai University, the leading STEM university in Japan, has a vision and mission grown from its founder’s philosophy – Professor Shigeyoshi Matsumae. His life goal was to create a university where young people and faculty would have sustained, deep interactions with social purpose.

Tokai University is implementing this philosophy. It has intensive citizenship education on all eight of its regional campuses for 7,000 entering first year students. It plans to expand this to 30,000.

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