This is an opportunity for our universities to regain credibility

Free State premier Sisi Ntombela visited the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein on April 14 to assess production of medical essentials to help in fighting Covid-19. /Gallow Images
Free State premier Sisi Ntombela visited the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein on April 14 to assess production of medical essentials to help in fighting Covid-19. /Gallow Images

In a rapidly changing, uncertain and complex world, the role that universities are playing as the engines of social mobility, as drivers of the economy and as generators of new ideas, is now more critical than ever.

Due to the universal nature of knowledge, universities are global in scope - a space that encourages new ideas, controversy, inquiry and argument, and challenges orthodox views - but they are also deeply entrenched in their local environment, influenced by socioeconomic and political dynamics.

There is an expectation that universities should exhibit great levels of responsiveness and public accountability, with higher levels of trust in higher education, between higher education and government, and higher education and the public.

The challenge for both higher education and government is to allow institutional autonomy without oppressive accountability.

Over the past few years, the purpose of universities has been challenged in relation to their role in society, their advocacy for speaking truth to power, their continuous striving to be great without being elitist, and their ability to function in an age of populism.

The Donald Trump administration has demonstrated that there is a decline in the respect for evidence and advice from subject-specific experts. It seems as if empirical reality does not matter, nor does empirical reasoning form the basis of public policy.

Emotion and personal belief have been shown to carry more weight than objective facts and evidence in terms of influencing public opinion. Fake news and "the alternative truth" have also challenged the fundamental principles of a university - academic freedom and the generation of new knowledge in the pursuit of truth.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown deep fault lines in our society - stark poverty and inequality - that universities should engage with (and they do). However, they cannot eliminate it on their own, but can be part of the solution.

Perhaps this pandemic has also created an opportunity for science and evidence to regain credibility in informing government decisions and public trust, and for universities to demonstrate respect for evidence.

Through data and proper analyses, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), other scientific bodies and the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 provided evidence-based information to government and the public, from which meaningful decisions could be taken.

The government has made it perfectly clear that decisions around Covid-19 will be made based on the science associated with this pandemic - a stance to be applauded.

Hence the risk-adjusted approach of "opening up" the economy by easing the lockdown measures but constantly monitoring the infection curve.

Universities, science laboratories and pharmaceutical companies are working hard to develop an effective vaccine for Covid-19. Universities are making advances in personal protective equipment, more advanced methods of testing to reduce turnaround times, and other scientific studies.

This platform is giving universities a renewed impetus to use science and scientific developments to advance societal agendas such as climate change, poverty and inequality, public health and social justice (ethics of care) - and more immediate - assisting in rebuilding a strong South African economy.

It is an opportunity for the public and politicians to regain trust in universities, but it is also an opportunity for universities to profile their intellectuals so that the value of science and evidence-based output is part of policy debates and informed decision-making.

However, in doing so, universities must strengthen their relationship with society at large.

*Prof Petersen is a chemical engineer and rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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