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FRANCIS PIETERSEN | Let's always make a positive difference in our society

Universities must play a role in the development of communities they're based in

Volunteers finishing off a mosaic of Nelso Mandela made with food cans on Mandela Day on July 18, 2022 at Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) on July 18, 2022 in Cape Town.
Volunteers finishing off a mosaic of Nelso Mandela made with food cans on Mandela Day on July 18, 2022 at Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) on July 18, 2022 in Cape Town.
Image: Brenton Geach

The month of July is traditionally an opportunity for us as South Africans to get involved in making a real positive difference in our society – in the spirit of selfless giving, exemplified by our esteemed former president, Nelson Mandela. But there is only so much an individual or individual organisations can do.

We are living in a time of increasingly complex social challenges, and to address them it has become essential to join forces with others across a wide range of sectors and disciplines to find effective, lasting solutions.   

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought some valuable insights, lessons and renewed realisations. One of these is around our interconnectedness on regional, national and global levels. And with that there has been a renewed appreciation of the value of collaboration, and perhaps co-creation to address issues that confront us as a collective.

A good example of this type of collaboration was during the Free State’s vaccination drive last year. The University of the Free State (UFS) assisted the provincial department of health not only through infrastructural support, in the form of computer equipment and furniture at vaccination sites in Bloemfontein and QwaQwa but by providing high-level mathematical modelling information and guidance on the spread and the identification of high-risk areas in terms of infections.

Various private sector and civil society organisations did their bit by spreading information and getting people to vaccination sites. This collaboration between the public, private and higher education sectors resulted in a smooth and effective process that received overwhelmingly positive public feedback.

With the ongoing massification of higher education and the accompanying diversification of student bodies in many parts of the world, universities around the globe have in recent years increasingly been investing finances and resources towards student support mechanisms to ensure student success.

Many institutions of higher learning have realised that a collaborative approach is needed, with different departments and offices – comprising academic and support personnel – joining forces and expertise from multiple angles to find sustainable solutions to student needs.  

It is important to see these developments against the background of the changing role of public universities. Our function nowadays is very much a society-focused one, where we concentrate on applying our skills and knowledge to make a real difference in the societies we serve and draw our students from.

 At the UFS, for instance, our Centre for Teaching and Learning has developed various initiatives to ensure student success, enabling us to record a 12% improvement in our general academic success rate over the past 10 years. An important component of this support is academic advising, where we make sure that students’ career aspirations and aptitude line up with their study fields, preventing them from ending up in courses that do not fit their interests and natural talents.

A collaborative approach dictates that universities not only do their utmost to help students overcome shortcomings in their basic education, but that they also join forces with affected schools in an effort to improve education.

In terms of research, our various collaborations with individuals, institutions and organisations across the globe assist us in conducting research that has high industry value and real-world application. Most universities also have some form of community outreach or engaged scholarship strategy, which sees us applying the knowledge we produce in the quest to foster development and innovation, as well as advancing citizenship and service for the public good.

Here, partnerships with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community organisations are essential, allowing those involved to learn from one another, grow and develop in a reciprocal fashion. The format of these collaborations has also evolved in recent years, with a growing focus on interdisciplinary interactions, where experts from different sectors and study fields are roped in, approaching challenges from a range of different perspectives. At the UFS, we have established an Interdisciplinary Centre for Digital Futures with a dedicated mandate to initiate projects with a multidisciplinary approach, combining social, natural and digital sciences to find solutions to relevant societal needs.

The private sector also needs to implement dedicated internship and employment opportunities for young graduates to gain work experience, backed up by government incentives and policies that make it worth their while and stimulate investment.

Prof Pietersen is rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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