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student. Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

COVID-19 has accelerated the pace of changes that technology has and will be bringing to higher education and university systems. Where universities were experimenting with open distance and eLearning modes, blended learning and teaching, the lockdown has forced laggards to take up remote learning and teaching. However, this does not mean that we know how university communities will now form when old classroom practices cannot be held to be the only or natural formats for teaching and learning, research and innovation; and engaged scholarship.

It is important to think about the work that university communities do. For much of the hidden curriculum of a university is learnt and taught within the arrangements that form the communities of a university. For many students, going to university is a rite of passage into adulthood with its many freedoms, responsibilities and accountabilities.

It is for this reason that Ortega y Gasset, the great Spanish philosopher, spoke of universities as places where communities teach the best of their cultures to the best of their talented learners. It is therefore important to reassert the purpose of public higher education in South Africa and the continental context.

In ‘Rethinking Universities’, the iconic African Feminist Scholar Professor Amina Mama rightly asserts that public universities as the leading institutions of higher learning are rightly expected to lead and not lag in the realization of people’s aspirations for full democracy and for social justice.

To be sure, though, universities in the South, including those in South Africa, have not been sites where the best of their cultures, civilizations’ and inventions are taught.

Going to university has been for many another painful step in a process that seeks to remove them from their cultural roots. Both formal curricula presented by lecturing staff and informal curricula, delivered by ‘how things work’ in daily routines of universities, have worked to say that their traditions and values are alien and inferior to the Western norms and mores that are given pride of place in initiation rituals, graduation ceremonies, residence arrangements, etc.

For this reason, many black students, women, and many who are in gender-minorities have lamented how they do not feel they can belong at universities. They speak loudly of black pain and of the routine violence that women and members of the LGBTQI+ communities experience.

The lockdown has accentuated the disadvantages of the disadvantaged in South Africa. It has reminded many of how the homes from which many students come are dormitories that apartheid sets apart for black people to mire in poverty. It has exposed how patriarchal norms burden young women with duties of care that prevent them from achieving educational success to the best of their abilities.

Some LGBTQI students have even had to return to the accommodation at their universities to avoid the discrimination they face in their home environments. These realizations beg that we give new and more gender nuanced understandings to inclusivity.

There is much work to be done to produce university communities that respond to the lived needs of all who belong in them and all who relate to them, the varied stakeholders.

When universities come to respond to the realities of the communities in which they are found in, they will be contextually attentive whilst aware of, and in tune with global knowledge developments. They will be inclusive, value diversity, decolonize and be unapologetic for endogenous and global knowledge systems. They will therefore enable students to meet each other in person and virtually, and to meet the world more generally in ways that give dignity and worth to everyone.

One of the lasting challenges of my career has been to promote engaged scholarship. Here I think of engaged scholarship as a practice by which members of university communities grapple with the needs of their communities and of the world. I think of the interface of science and society.

Precisely because universities have generally located their mandates on the colonial lenses and vestiges of the past, they need to develop novel engagements, which change the horizon of thinking and lift the bar of institutional research, ethics and value for knowledge systems. Ours has been to change the ways that universities have been built as plug-points for Western powers to extract value from their colonial vestiges and thus, the imperative for higher education emancipatory impulses and innovations that are responsive to the needs and aspirations of knowledge, and life with dignity and for all.

As an engaged scholar is to be freed to use privileged access to knowledge resources in communities that practice emancipatory research-led action. This research-led action is emancipatory in that it works within and reinforces communities as learning and action increasingly flourish. These communities increasingly flourish because they are marked by respectful interactions that recognize individual and collective contributions in all their varieties.

Two of the most valuable qualities of a university graduate are the ability to learn under fluid circumstances and the ability to live by a code of ethics that prioritizes excellence. The engaged scholarship promotes both of these qualities while simultaneously affirming that the learner is part of communities that value the learner. In this way, the engaged scholarship can catalyze the creation and realization of virtuous cycles of learning, action and research. After the lockdown, to retreat to online remote learning is to give up on this vision.

It is insightful that many people speak of online distant education as remote learning. Indeed, while such learning entails possibilities for digital interactivity, it also generates a host of ways in which individuals are subject to digital anomie.

With digital anomie, many experience loss of contact with others, loss of the social contact that provides members of a university community with conditions for belonging in mutual projects within which individuals find meaningful lives. In South Africa, such anomie multiplies for those who do not have the means to leap over the digital divide.

To build future communities of belonging at universities, it will be important that leadership weaves together traditional roles occupied by portfolios for research, learning and teaching, student affairs and general administration.

In the future that is increasingly upon us, a new ‘communal backcloth’ is required within which members of university communities can commune productively. How we weave this backcloth, and what we do in it is in our hands.

  • Prof Puleng LenkaBula is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Institutional Change, Student Affairs, and Community Engagement at the University of the Free State (UFS). She holds a Doctorate (2006/7) in Ethics (Theology and Philosophy) with specialisation in Social Ethics from the University of South Africa.

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