University and Society: Disruption, Discourse and New Directions

Rationale, motivation and aims

The project seeks to understand (and unpack) the deep complexities of the South African university against the background of the global discussion of the changing role of the university. It is especially pertinent in South Africa because of current crises of university funding, access, inequality, representativity, curriculum, and the impact of technology – challenges that are true of universities almost everywhere.

Within the context of changing understandings of universities, the project will look to sketch out the past and the future of South African higher education and to translate disruption and discourse into new directions and practice. Inherent to the project is a desire to be forward looking and to engage the next generation of academics in this endeavour.

Two further motivations point to the focus of this project:

  1. The current local discourse of and activism around transformation have highlighted the need to revisit the concept of what a South African university is or ought to be. This project aims to enrich the concept of transformation to reposition South African universities in the African and global contexts. The idea is to interrogate and broaden the notion of the university and to use the concept of transformation to reinvigorate and reposition South African universities within a global context.
  1. The project explores the tensions and possibilities between dominant and dormant epistemologies operative in the university. It provides an opportunity to reinterpret and contextualise knowledge, and to position South African scholars and scholarship as global leaders in this intellectual enterprise.

The project necessarily begins with understanding the past, and raises the question: how has colonisation directed and positioned South African universities into a subservient global position? As a result, knowledge of South Africa, being on the African continent, and what is South African is often narrated from the outside.

Theoretical point of departure

The theoretical point of departure is to disrupt contemporary understandings and notions of universities which are dominated by western and enlightenment knowledge systems. It is also a disruption of certain misunderstandings of the university in non-Western circles, as a magic dispenser of material possibilities. The project will therefore explore diverse knowledge systems and the proliferation of increasingly credentialed understandings of these, and their impact on contemporary higher education. This position is often ignored in debates on globalisation, and in understanding what constitutes excellence in universities.

The intention is to allow for a dynamic, respectful, and scholarly engagement with diverse knowledge systems, whilst building on established modes of thought and knowledge, and to provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of what it is to live in a world of interconnecting global and local hierarchies.

Areas of inquiry

The project focuses on four areas of enquiry, each pertaining in specific ways to the South African context but with the intention to invite perspectives from other parts of the globe:

Understanding the colonial legacies and post-colonial realities of the university

This will involve a curated history of the impact of colonial knowledge in the formation of the South African university system. Legacies and life worlds in South Africa’s universities were drawn from the Anglophone and European university traditions. Not one South African university has been immune from the impact of these traditions. Without understanding this founding principle, the case for repositioning South African universities is impossible. Here, it will be important to compare South Africa with the rest of the continent with its multiple colonial legacies.

We envisage an engagement that provides an understanding of these histories. This will be curated by editors appointed from within STIAS.

The entanglements of knowledge traditions and transitions in the university

This area seeks to engage in discussion around different epistemologies that underpin a layered and complex university system. Understandings of the world in South Africa are informed by the deep and nuanced complexities of its peoples. The richness of South African intellectual traditions and their place in the world resists a one-dimensional understanding of these complexities.

The project envisages an engagement with these traditions and their relationship to knowledge formation and the idea of the university. Inherent here is the need to interrogate how a South African university can be based in local intellectual traditions, while at the same time aspire to global relevance.

Understanding the contemporary university

The South African university experience over the last two decades indicates the limit of the traditional model of pedagogy and understandings of the world. Some of these limits are locally oriented while others are common across contexts. For example, changes in the governance of universities and the introduction of managerial cultures have exacerbated the crises that universities face, and have made the campus a site of intense political contestation. We need a deeper understanding of the trends in South African higher education, particularly those that have resulted in this ongoing paralysis.

Given the above, this focal point will engage with all 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.

The university of the future

If South African universities are to escape the present paralysis, they will need to reflect the country’s many worlds and its location on the African continent. This will require a new kind of post-secondary system, especially a new kind of university alive to a globalisation that does not privilege one set of values or knowledge over others. The next South African university needs to be intellectually critical, socially engaged, decolonised, and relevant to South Africa and Africa, and its societies and languages. These features of the next South African university will uniquely position it in a global context.

We seek proposals that conceptualise and imagine the next South African university, also in comparison with universities in other locales.

This long-term theme project of STIAS will be conducted in partnership with other South African knowledge institutions. The conveners of this project are Peter Vale (University of Johannesburg, Chair), Francis Nyamnjoh (University of Cape Town) and David Hornsby (University College London and University of the Witwatersrand).

Prospective applicants within this theme project are referred to the STIAS website for information on Application to the STIAS Programme.

One response to “University and Society: Disruption, Discourse and New Directions”

  1. Siphamandla Zondi
    Siphamandla Zondi on 5 October 2017 at 10:42: Reply

    This is a wonderful initiative, an opportunity to clarify the effort of deep transformation of the university in its epistemological and ontological underpinning in order to realise a truly diverse university that is designed to nurture a critical citizenry.

    We will support this anyway we can.

    Please keep us in the loop.

    siphamandla zondi
    professor and head of department: Political Sciences
    University of pretoria

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