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Higher education: The vital role of universities on the battlefield of unexpected economic calamities

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Professor Francis Petersen is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.

We truly find ourselves at a very low point as a nation. Financially, morally and mentally. And, like all other sectors of society, higher education needs to ask itself what it can do – if anything – to help fix what is broken.

South Africa is in trouble. No matter what your political or ethical persuasion – this much is abundantly clear. And if some of the opinions expressed lately by prominent economists are anything to go by, many are losing faith in whether we can still turn around a downward economic trajectory.

But before we make up our minds either way, it is important to first face a truth that lies at the core of it all: It is impossible to build a thriving economy on the back of a divided society. This makes societal reform a logical departure point for any economic relief efforts.  

And here the higher education sector has a definite and vital role to play. 

On the battlefield of unexpected calamities, the South African economy can be compared to a soldier who has taken too many hits. First, the devastating impact on so many sectors of our society caused by Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions; followed by the question over misspent or missing pandemic support funds; and then the final agonising blow – the looting and destruction in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in July, leaving a gaping hole of around R50-billion in damages. 

Equally heart-breaking and disconcerting as the physical damages and loss of life, is the damage caused to our nation’s psyche, with racist and classist fault lines reappearing, fuelled by the divisive rhetoric of unscrupulous leaders. 

Looming ominously over this crowded battlefield are the murky clouds of corruption at the highest level and of the most disturbing kind, which have been systematically and painfully laid bare by the Zondo Commission over the past three years. 

We truly find ourselves at a very low point as a nation. Financially, morally and mentally. 

And, like all other sectors of society, higher education needs to ask itself what it can do – if anything – to help fix what is broken.

Changing role of universities 

Universities used to have a rather narrow focus on education and the creation of new knowledge. This role has, however, evolved considerably over the past decade or two. Their function nowadays is very much a societal one, where the focus is on using skills and knowledge to make a real difference in the societies they serve and from which they draw their students – the engaged university.

Let’s be clear: higher education cannot solve poverty and inequality. That is the domain of the government, which needs to ensure that appropriate policies are in place that will constructively stimulate investment and assistance from the private sector and industry. 

The higher education sector needs to focus on its strengths. And that is to do research; to offer advice and come up with possible solutions; to educate and to provide skills that will help uplift individuals, families and communities. 

In short, universities need to deliver graduates who will ultimately build a better society, and through engaged scholarship change the lives of people. 

What has become abundantly clear, though, is that education alone is not enough. The corruption implications and moral dilemmas that many of our highly qualified politicians and leaders are embroiled in prove that more is needed than just academic aptitude.

The purpose of universities should therefore not only be to deliver good workers or thinkers. Universities need to deliver good citizens. Citizens who possess unshakeable values and ethics, enabling them to become good leaders.

During a recent 2021 University of the Free State Thought Leader webinar titled Is South Africa falling apart – where to from here? panellists stated that the role of universities is to create a culture of active citizenry, to play a part in the holistic transformation of society, to ensure the sharing of research and discoveries, and to ensure inclusive academic excellence. These are no small feats and something higher education institutions should strive for.   

Creating a new generation of leaders 

While young people spend time on university campuses, it is vital that – along with academic knowledge – universities educate them about the norms and values that form the bedrock of a healthy, thriving society. Not only teaching these values of social justice, respect, tolerance and care – but also demonstrating how they find practical application.  

Universities should be microcosms of an ideal society, where respect for human rights and diversity, equality and care underpin all our policies, communication and interactions. 

Universities should consistently use discourse platforms to promote these values and to speak out against things that threaten them, such as corruption, injustice and prejudice in any form. 

But once again, it goes further than that. Not only do we need to teach and encourage our students to speak out. We need to educate them on how to speak out. 

Unfortunately, so many of the student protest actions on our university campuses often fall short in this aspect, as valid concerns and demands are regularly overshadowed by disrespectful rhetoric, accompanied by unwarranted destruction of property and endangering lives.    

Recently, the University of the Free State had the opportunity to host a book launch by Helen Zille, the DA’s Federal Council chairperson. Among the guests was EFF leader Julius Malema. 

Afterwards, some political science students remarked how surprised they were to witness the very civil interaction between Zille and Malema – in the light of their very public political spats and differences.

And here lies an important lesson for our young South Africans: that there is a level of maturity that needs to be displayed if we want to take our country forward together. 

We can differ from someone – and passionately express our differences – but retain an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. Our young leaders of tomorrow need to understand that, in the absence of such an atmosphere, reasonable negotiations become impossible, and they run the real risk of thwarting the very cause they are fighting for. 

Interconnectedness of our society 

As much as higher education has a clearly defined role, it can only fulfil this role effectively if it is part of a well-functioning, larger system. 

As higher education, government, private sector and industry, we are interconnected and unable to function properly in isolation. 

Universities can, for example, teach young people the value of entrepreneurship and equip them with the necessary skills to contribute to the economy. But without an enabling environment created by the government, policies and commitment, as well as buy-in and support from industry, it all falls apart.

As much as I cannot thrive if my neighbour is suffering, we cannot rebuild our economy if we don’t acknowledge our interdependence and find new, innovative ways to collaborate to move ahead together.  

The age-old principles of ubuntu need to find a renewed, modern application in South Africa today. 

Involving our young people 

Whatever form economic rescue efforts take, it must involve the young people of our country. Making decisions that will profoundly influence them without involving them in the process is downright irresponsible. 

We simply cannot afford to alienate our leaders of tomorrow and then expect them to be ready to take over the baton and not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. 

At the University of the Free State, our student participation in university governance structures was at an all-time high of 70% last year. We see this as an important accomplishment – we hope to build on and expand this even further. In most of my dealings with our young leaders of tomorrow, I certainly get the impression that they are keen to make a positive contribution to our country. But they yearn for guidance, encouragement and opportunities.  

Nothing about us without us” is a slogan used widely in various contexts nowadays, with its roots tracing to South African disability advocates in the 1980s. It is equally applicable to young people in our current South African predicament. 

Our young people need to be turned from apathy to active involvement. Without them, no economic “rescue efforts” will have long-term sustainability. 

After all: it is their future that is at stake. DM

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  • A few things you might also want to consider:

    1. Higher education is not a human right. Nor should it ever be conceived of as such. Is is a privilege, and one that must be earned by meeting a set minimum standard. Not by throwing a tantrum to get the system to lower its standard so that you can get something without putting the work in.

    2. Get rid of this notion that universities are “safe spaces”. Students should be safe from harm, sure, but that is true for anywhere else so is a pointless argument. Universities should be the most intellectually unsafe spaces that exist in the country. Ideas need to be tested, interrogated, and refined at a university. Staying silent because you might offend someone somewhere undermines the very purpose of a university.

    3. Rethink the idea that anyone needs to be politically represented in an academic institution. The politics of the nation should have no bearing on anything within academia because there are very clear ideologies that actively discourage freedom of thought and if these pollutants gain a foothold, then our universities become little more than glorified political recruitment offices. Is this what we want them to be ‘transformed’ into?

    4. Tearing down statues under a flimsy pretence of “decolonisation” merely demonstrates a poor knowledge of history married with a delusional sense of entitlement. If you act like a child, don’t be surprised when you get treated like one. Choose to be better.

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