The Responsive University

This project falls under the STIAS longer term theme project University and Society, sub-theme: Understanding the Contemporary University

(From the concept note): Universities worldwide are relentlessly focused on attaining ‘excellence’. But through whose lenses is ‘excellence’ to be seen? Who defines the criteria under which the quality of a university is to be judged? By what convention, precedent or authority, and by whom?

In South Africa, where universities face a legitimacy question based on legacy issues, such questions have mostly been phrased in terms of a push towards decolonisation. It would be helpful, however, to see this local manifestation of questions about higher education against the background of the global context.
For this purpose we need to investigate, not only how universities engage with society, but how they actually respond, or fail to respond, to societal challenges. These might be global challenges, like climate change or clean energy, or social challenges like poverty or poor schooling, or local challenges like a city running out of water. The university’s academic role is not only a matter of what the university is good at, but equally a matter of what it is good for. Decolonisation is a societal challenge of particular relevance to South Africa. It is not only ‘excellence’, but also the extent to which a university is an integral part of the society within which it is situated, which determines its legitimacy, and indeed its quality.

In the South African context, therefore, questions to consider include: How do we include/engage with features of South African universities including (but not exclusively) matters pertaining to participation, access, identity, location, student preparedness, transition, schooling, curriculum, university funding and affordability, the student experience, the relationship between universities and the labour market, and the impact of technology?

  • Rationale: There is a fairly substantial literature on the manner and extent to which universities engage with society. Such engagement takes many forms: service to underprivileged communities, fair access, contributions to arts and culture, interactions with city developments, collaborations with business and industry, and many more. At first, universities characterised such work as ‘outreach’, or even as ‘third strand’ activities, until it was realised that engagement can neither be a one-way stream nor disengaged from research and teaching.For the engagement agenda to succeed, however, as an academic activity enjoying parity of esteem with research and teaching, there is a question that can no longer be avoided. To what extent is the university’s engagement with society conducted on the university’s own terms, and to what extent (if at all) does the university actually respond to societal needs and demands?I first raised this question in my book The Soul of a University: Why Excellence is not Enough, Bristol University Press, July 2018). The project being proposed here is a first attempt at finding answers.
  •  Topics to cover:
  1. The idea of responsiveness as an essential part of universities’ engagement with society
  2. Different kinds of societal challenges that universities respond to
  3. Case studies of responsiveness
  4. Lacunae: What more needs to be done?
  •  Key questions:
  1. Do universities respond to the challenges facing civil society?
  2. If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. How should universities respond to the challenges facing civil society?
  • Output: I propose an edited volume in two parts: The Responsive University; Part I: Global Context; Part II: South Africa. (Should the amount and quality of material require it, this may become two volumes.)

Contributions will be by invitation. Because the project will in the end focus on the issue of decolonisation in South Africa, we’ll take our ‘global context’ from where colonisation arose and where ‘Western’ science and knowledge systems are prevalent: the UK, Europe and the USA.

Project leader(s):
  • Chris Brink (Emeritus Vice-Chancellor, Newcastle University)

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