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SA higher education needs to rediscover its social purpose

Universities in SA are more focused on preparing students for high-paying jobs.
Universities in SA are more focused on preparing students for high-paying jobs.

For more than 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 decolonisation 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 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. In the UK under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, funding policies encouraged British universities to adopt business management practices. It also involved gearing degree offerings to the requirements of "the market".

In SA, the second wave was symbolised by University of Cape Town protests in 2015 over the stature of Cecil John Rhodes. The movement has been marked by demands for a reform of the curriculum away from the Western "canon" and towards African epistemology. Politically, it has been characterised by demands for free higher education.

The third wave has been propagated by the World Economic Forum and champions of artificial intelligence (AI) and the digital revolution. This perspective holds that AI and machine-learning will dominate knowledge. Academic disciplines should, therefore, be geared to this end. But there has been little public discussion about the contradictions between the three movements.

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. Today, its mission has shrunk.

Why is there this disconnect? The answer is 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 teaching and public connections.

Put differently, higher education in the country doesn't fulfil its civic potential.

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

Tokai University is implementing this philosophy. It has intensive citizenship education on all its campuses.

In SA, universities service two important activities.

The first is to prepare students for jobs. The second is to conduct research that treats social communities more as objects of study than as knowledge partners. This approach excludes the development and support of civic agency from scholarly purpose.

The hard truth is that higher education contributes to societal erosion when expert-knows-best approaches displace civic agency. This is because experts are often far removed from the needs of community development.

Higher education which prepares students for res publica - for the community - or in local terms, ubuntu - has been replaced. Instead, education in SA is suited for res idiotica - a private and isolated person.

What can be done? Fortunately, a growing literature points towards civic revival in higher education. Two broad streams of thinking are establishing new platforms for exchange, experiment, and social change. One is an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary field that has emerged under the broad rubric of "civic studies".

This encourages research and real-world projects that integrate empirical, cultural and political knowledge as resources for community agency, societal co-creation and human flourishing.

One of the key elements of civic studies is public work, a framework of social action developed in partnership with organisations such as the Institute for Democracy in SA.

Cultural evolution is the other stream. This provides resources for civic reconstruction of higher education.

Civic studies and cultural evolution show human societies can succeed through co-operative efforts. But this is only possible when members understand and pursue their interests with regard for the wellbeing of all.

Higher education needs to take on this insight as it's indispensable for revitalising human agency, flourishing communities, and active democracy. It will also re-frame scholarship, teaching and public engagements.

This needs to be in pursuit of ensuring scholarship becomes an integral part of democratic life, not simply as a partner with society.

- Vale is a senior research fellow at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at the University of Pretoria, and Boyte is a senior scholar in public work philosophy at Augsburg University in the US

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