Prof Sibongile Muthwa, Chair of the USAf Board and Vice-Chancellor, Nelson Mandela University;
Prof Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf);
Chairs of University Councils, Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Schools and Academic Departments; Esteemed international guests and speakers;
CEOs and officials from private higher education institutions and other organisations represented here today;
Officials from the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation and other Government Departments present today;
Academics and administration professionals;
Universities South Africa management;
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is gives me great pleasure to open the first virtual Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit, to be held under the theme “Leading and managing the University in Africa, for disruption, complexity, and change.”
On Conference Theme:
The theme of the Conference – “Leading and managing the University in Africa, for disruption, complexity, and change” - is critically relevant to those in higher education wishing to grapple with the transformational challenges facing not only the post-school education and training system, but arguably, wider society.
I say this because I do not think one can properly understand ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ of the University in Africa, or for that matter, issues of ‘disruption’, ‘complexity’ and ‘change’ outside of a critical understanding of the wider contradictions of our time.
Right now, the whole world is rightly seized with the struggle to combat the pernicious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and our Universities have been in the forefront of the struggle to achieve this. It has correctly dominated our minds and hearts for almost the entire year. And 2020 has certainly been an unprecedented challenge for the leadership and management of our Universities and the wider PSET system.
But the COVID-19 crisis is also connected to a wider set of crises; of social inequality, of climate change, of technological disruption, and linked to all of the above: a crisis of the global capitalist system. What is clear to me is that unequal ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is manifesting itself, together with climate and technological changes, are all deeply connected to the nature of this system. In fact, we cannot speak of a sustainable, let alone equal society, unless and until we fundamentally change the nature of the global economic and social order.
Referring to the Conference theme, I want to suggest that delegates might want to consider debating the issues of ‘disruption’, ‘complexity’ and ‘change’ in the context of three (3) inter-related historical concerns facing the entire PSET sector.
Firstly, and related to the point made earlier, is the central question of the role of public universities in promoting fundamental structural transformation of society: that is to say, the struggle for a more inclusive, equal society. How can our universities be in the forefront of the quest for a more sustainable alternative?
The FeesMustFall struggles of 2015-2017 have produced a new wave of ideals and energies which have sparked a wide range of curriculum, pedagogic, research and innovation experiments at almost all our universities. The question we have to ask is how is this energy leading a movement from universities into society?
Secondly, for universities to promote the goals of an equal, inclusive society, they themselves must be equal and inclusive, and key to this is the challenge of transforming the dominant relations of knowledge production within our universities - which are still largely patriarchal, racialise and reproduce the dominant class inequalities in societies.
How can we use the COVID-19 moment, to pose deeper questions about the knowledge producers and types of knowledge of the academic system: how far are we in the development of black and women academic in scholarship? How far are we in the redress of institutional inequalities faced by our historically-black and rural universities? And where are we in the reconstruction of curricula that presents fresh alternatives to the dominant discourses of the wider economic and social order?
Thirdly, I think Conference is also presented with an opportunity to address the challenge of conflict management and resolution at our universities. This is an issue of serious concern today.
I come from a political and intellectual tradition that argues that without struggle there will be no change. But this belief does not mean that such struggles must be violent and destructive – especially in a democratic society. We have to replace traditions where stakeholders destroy public buildings and threaten others with campaigns that are transformative, constructive and co-creational in its power.
It cannot be that present and future struggles for change by some stakeholders are lived out in the same way in which we struggled as students in the 1970’s and 1980’s under Apartheid.
Another issue that I would like to place very high up on the agenda of this webinar, is the absolute necessity to build a durable and sustainable public university system. Building strong public universities is one of the key challenges facing the African continent in Africa.
South Africa has built a relatively strong, if not equal, public university system but that is increasingly facing huge challenges and threats - increasingly relying on student fees with diminishing public investment by government, whilst simultaneously bursting at the seams.
A related question is what kind of partnerships do we need to forge between a public university system with the private sector, and most importantly with communities and civil society.
On the Challenges of the Current Academic Year:
Under Covid-19, we have noted that a number of universities are pointing to better student performance in comparison to previous year’s performance.
We have interrogated the reasons for this performance and found multiple contributory factors although inconclusive at this stage because we are yet to conduct more assessment across all our teaching and learning parameters, especially after the completion of the 2020 Academic year.
Our initial assessment indicates that during this period we had positive impact in many areas in respect of (i) the multimodal, blended approach to teaching and learning, (ii) opportunities provided to students to learn in different ways, and (iii) multiple assessment methods.
It is therefore unavoidable that blended and multimodal learning, including digital and online learning should become a standard feature for our future PSET system.
In this regard, I intend to set up a Ministerial Task Team to help us develop strategies to make online learning a reality in our sector beyond the existential challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having said that, we will have to take into consideration the class and spatial legacies of the past which continue to impair the ability of many of our students to fully take advantage of learning opportunities presented by digital platforms.
Part of our major consideration should be the selection of our programme offerings, resource allocations, enrolment planning processes, as well as the identification and development of new qualifications and programmes in line with the needs of our economy and society as a whole.
This is a relevant concern in reference to the latest National List of Occupation