It seems obvious to say that higher education or universities have been deeply disrupted by COVID-19. This effect is not surprising – we have been and are, after all, living in an age of disruptions and crises that have not spared universities. COVID-19 has simply exacerbated those ongoing disruptions and crises.
The situation requires of us to rethink and reimagine universities and their relationship to and their role in broader society. This is an opportune moment for deeper introspection and re-strategising. It is also an opportune time to rethink and reimagine our societies. The aim of this exercise is to act to create a different and better world. Universities should reposition themselves more strongly and visibly as key drivers and agents of change.
By paralysing contact, in-person teaching, the pandemic hit at the heart of how universities usually operate. This mode of teaching has increasingly come under fire with the rise of online modes enabled by disruptive digital technologies. The pandemic has, in this regard, appeared to be a rapid innovator to a reluctant, tradition-bound institution.
Apocalyptic prophecies of the demise of brick-and-mortar universities, in which academics pontificate before bemused or disinterested students texting on their smartphones, have arisen. Rumours or prophecies of the death of the university as we know it are greatly exaggerated.
A period of learning and teaching innovation
It is now necessary to be future-orientated, to move further and faster, to adopt and adapt digital technologies, to develop online teaching methodologies and create curricula for online platforms. We need to embrace online teaching beyond the emergency remote mode that the pandemic has forced us to adopt.
The future, however, does not lie in going wholesale online for all teaching but in varieties of hybridity or blended teaching and learning online offerings. Careful calibration is needed depending on the level of study, discipline, field and multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary offerings. Universities will now have to think of contact, hybrid and online offerings.
It might make sense for undergraduate students to experience a mix of hybrid and online offerings, while postgraduates and professionals seeking further education have more online courses. It will still be necessary for some laboratory-based courses to be delivered in contact mode and for others to use virtual laboratories and technology-enabled simulations.
The point is that we have before us opportunities for rethinking and reimagining traditional modes of teaching and learning in ways that have appropriate spaces for contact sessions that are necessary to develop skills like emotional intelligence, and valuing diversity, engagement and collaboration. What lies ahead should be a period of teaching and learning innovation that enhances the notion that university education produces knowledgeable, adaptable, skilled, sensitive and socially-engaged citizens rooted in their locality, but thinking and able to act globally.
Staff (including professional staff) and student training for hybrid and online offerings is a critical requirement going forward. It should not be assumed that the possession of a digital device connected to the internet equates to an ability to teach or learn on the same device. Standing in front of a camera or computer screen equally does not qualify as quality teaching. Such training should not be about the technology per se, but about all aspects of pedagogy online.
Think beyond disciplines
In Africa, we also need to ensure that there is access to the technology and connectivity for institutions and students so that no institution or student is left behind. We cannot deepen the digital divide and undermine our aim to contribute to the creation of more equitable societies that advance social justice. The digitisation of institutions will require considerable resources that some students do not currently have.
Research training requires the same creativity and innovation as teaching and learning. Doing research also requires multiple turns that seek to address the disruptions and crises that our societies and the world face. Firstly, there should be careful calibration that stretches from doing disciplinary-based research to multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary research aimed at addressing the complex challenges caused by the age of disruptions and crises.
In short, we now need to be much more deliberate and add a sense of urgency to dismantling disciplinary silos, boundaries and borders. Societal problems and challenges do not come neatly packaged to fit into disciplinary thinking.
Thinking beyond disciplines requires us to be much more communicative about why and what research we do, and how such research responds to society’s challenges – we have to be much more explicit about the relevance of our research without compromising on rigour, quality and excellence. As [the former Stellenbosch and later Newcastle University vice-chancellor] Chris Brink argues in his book The Soul of a University: Why excellence is not enough, we need to address what we are good at and for.
Secondly, in the context of the transdisciplinary turn, we need to reimagine international collaboration, partnerships and global engagement. Again, the principle of a deliberate crossing of borders and boundaries is important, especially as we reclaim physical movement after the lockdowns and beyond COVID-19.
Online platforms have served us well during lockdown and given us opportunities we had underexploited. Just as teaching and learning are insufficient as a purely online engagement, many aspects of research require human engagement that is complemented and augmented by online engagement. A stronger hybrid future beckons too in the research space.
Network needs to take the lead
Thirdly, in terms of international and global research engagements, we need to rethink the movement of students; this includes student exchanges. We might want to develop joint degrees, especially at doctoral level, instead of one-way movements to the Global North. The principle of mutual benefit in research collaborations and staff and student exchanges would be best served by such deliberate arrangements, which would also disrupt patterns of brain drains that the Global South suffers.
The Africa-Australia Universities Network needs to take the lead by doing several things: ensuring that our activities move beyond individual research grants to large grants involving multi[ple] universities in the network; [carrying out] staff and student exchanges and joint doctoral degrees, programmes and course development; as well as co-teaching, using both online and contact modes.
We need to expand the network by attracting more universities in Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Critical mass and scale across two major regions of the world is what we should aim to achieve. Global challenges – from the climate crisis to pandemics and addressing inequality, poverty and creating more just, equal, equitable and sustainable societies – require large-scale enduring partnerships and collaborations.
The exercise of reimagining universities and higher education would be incomplete without addressing financing, funding and resourcing, and the management and administration of universities. The effects of COVID-19 on economies have raised the spectre and are resulting in cuts to the budgets of public universities, especially in contexts where funding has for decades been in decline while student numbers have been on the rise.
As universities reposition and renew themselves to produce graduates who are well educated and possess skills that are responsive to the changing world of work and knowledge that is much more aligned to addressing local and global challenges, governments and the private sector should increase funding so they can meet these demands.
Increased funding should be adequate, sustained and sustainable to cover the costs of bursaries, teaching and learning, including the digital infrastructure, research, collaboration and partnerships. Universities should learn to become better advocates for themselves through their contributions to society and by communicating those contributions.
Institutions have the power to change
With regard to management and administration, universities should review their structures to be less bureaucratic and managerialist, and more adaptable, flexible and enabling to academics, researchers and students as they transition into less disciplinary-bound academic and research programmes.
Digital technologies must be deployed to free online administrative systems and processes of additional burdens and to be accessible from anywhere. Finally, there is the physical and mental well-being of university communities to consider. The disruptions of the past few decades have created stress that is harmful to the well-being of students and staff. A combination of in-person and online services have to become an integral element of university services, complemented by externally contracted services. Sports, both competitive and recreational, must also be strongly promoted.
As knowledge institutions, it is within our power to change so that we can be central to transforming and changing our societies and the world.