The conference will explore concepts of funding and building sustainable universities in an unequal society. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency
The conference will explore concepts of funding and building sustainable universities in an unequal society. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency

Great academic minds to tackle pressing issues in higher education

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Sep 19, 2021

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Against a backdrop of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s largest gathering of academics next month is scheduled to take place in Pretoria to chart a way forward for its tertiary education sector, to ensure the ivory tower of learning engages with the communities they serve.

Professor Themba Mosia, chairperson of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), a statutory body advising Minister of Higher Education Training, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande on quality assurance issues, said as a sector, tertiary institutions must become more responsive to development needs.

While some have regarded tertiary institutions as ivory towers, the conference on October 6 to 8 is about reimagining the sector’s engagement with society.

“There are so many challenges that require interventions and contributions and discussions and debates. And because we are, by and large, public institutions, of course, not social welfare institutions as we are broke, engagement takes different forms across all institutions, and given this challenge (the coronavirus pandemic) that we had with since March 2020, our problems have multiplied,” he added.

The second higher education conference under the theme, The Engaged University, seeks to reach out to communities “because there are so many challenges that require interventions and contributions and discussions and debates”.

Mosia said the pandemic had forced the sector to engage more rapidly. “We remember the discussions about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and what everyone was doing, and some institutions were leading in this expertise, and some institutions lag because of some constraints within them. So, this engagement is supposed to consider all these challenges that we’re facing as a society, and then see how we can be responsive to these challenges.”

The conference will tackle pressing educational problems under several key themes. They relate to the critical issue of funding and the sustainable university in an unequal society, the impact of research and innovation, teaching and learning with an emphasis on decolonisation and scholarship, transformation, and harnessing the tertiary sector for the world of work in which disruption is a keyword to shake up the industry.

The former teacher and respected administrator, Mosia, who is a vice-principal at the University of Pretoria, said, the kind of engagement required was one that reaches out to the society, shares information, so that people know that knowledge is power.

“So, we want to engage with this quite robustly. Get the input of others because the CHE is an expert-driven organisation. We have it within the organisation and outside. So, it is that kind of an approach that we must be able to listen to other voices, listen to students, other experts, people from different types of institutions,” he said.

Although the more extensive transformation agenda is expected to dominate proceedings, Mosia expects the impact of the pandemic to underpin proceedings throughout the three-day conference. “Another constraint as a sector is the funding cuts. And Covid19 has brought a twist to all of that.

“But it’s serious business. And we took a decision to be responsive. Let us deem all problems that were cleared for contact teaching to be accredited for online teaching. And we’ll be able to evaluate this anyway, because you want to see if you have done what you’re supposed to do. So it is that kind of responsiveness that is important.”

Critically, Mosia said the engagements must have an impact, so that, the sector benefits, with positive spin-offs for business and other stakeholders. “We have different mandates. But the bottom line, is that, this kind of debate should benefit our key stakeholders, the students, so they should be the biggest beneficiaries of this because our students are struggling.”

Mosia, whose experience spans three decades in higher education, said students should be at the heart of deliberations as critical beneficiaries of learning and teaching outcomes.

“We need to be able to demonstrate that our students will derive the benefit of this and listen to their voices. Listening to students gives you the edge, because students are facing a myriad of health issues now. I know mental health is the prominent one, but engagement in the community make us understand the backgrounds of our students.

“It’s essential to know your student, and this is a mistake that we often make because we’re so busy. We tend to operate kind of like, this is your assignment, this is your test exam, without understanding student backgrounds, their needs.”

Mosia said it doesn’t cost money to get to know students better or keep them fulfilled. “The student experience is developing, unless you provide a positive student experience as a sector, you will keep on having all of these old-fashioned tactics that would have taken the sector backward instead of forward.”

Already, the CHE has been involved in evaluating the community engagement programmes of universities, reporting to Parliament and the minister on what is happening in the sector, underscoring the importance of bringing about transformation in the industry.

“So, we want to be responsive, and offer support throughout to institutions to help them survive.”

THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT

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