Universities don't just lead public debate around moral behaviour and conflict resolution through rational debate. They are also a unique space where students are exposed to 'the other' - and come to grips with their misconceptions around this otherness.
This was a key message from Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price, in conversation with his counterparts from local institutions on 4 March. The vice-chancellors - and in some cases their representatives - were debating universities' roles in modern society: whether they are uniquely positioned to lead the transformation of South African society after apartheid.
Price said universities were spaces where students met and interacted with people from various backgrounds, which was a change from the often sheltered norms some students grew up in.
"Some universities ... are places where students meet 'the other' for the first time," said Price.
"They come to a university campus which is very diverse, and they are confronted with this diversity, with people from different backgrounds, different social classes, different languages, different religions.
"I think one of the most powerful things you do at university is to educate people about 'the other', about tolerance, about reconciliation, and to reduce the fear of the unknown. In the post-apartheid society, what can be more important than that?"
Sharing the panel with Price were a host of other vice-chancellors: Professor Prins Nevhutalu of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology; Dr Mvuho Tom of the University Fort Hare; Philippa Tumubweinee, representing the VC of the University of the Free State; Professor Norman Duncan, representing the VC of the University of Pretoria; Professor Irene Moutlana, VC of the Vaal University of Technology; Professor Brian O'Connell, VC of the University of the Western Cape; and Professor Adam Habib, VC of the University of the Witwatersrand. Nevhutalu argued that universities should guard against merely producing students that exacerbated present social inequalities.
"South Africa has one of the world's largest Gini coefficients," said Nevhutalu. "Do universities produce students who are going to exacerbate these divisions between the very rich and the very poor? For example, if our students become MDs of companies, how do they treat their workers? What kind of graduates do we produce so that we can – be part of a changed society?"
Habib agreed that universities needed to equip graduates with more than just enough skill to fit seamlessly into a pre-defined working world. "What people want is for graduates to perform tomorrow [after graduating] in the working world at 120%," said Habib. "It doesn't happen anywhere in the world. Skills transfer has two elements. One is training, which the university plays a fundamental role in. But the second is mentorship." Mentorship was where industry needed to take the lead, said Habib.
Moutlana said that universities should be fundamentally concerned with social upliftment:
"[We should be concerned with] the upliftment of the human species and of society as a whole for the common good." However, this quest for the common good had been undermined by a lust for profit, Moutlana maintained.
Responding to perceptions that universities conducted esoteric research, Price added that one would be hard-pressed to find research at local institutions that didn't add value to society, either immediately or as a foundation for future endeavours.
"If we want to simply be the adopters of knowledge produced elsewhere in the world, then we can say we should do no discovery," said Price. "But I don't think we want to do that as a country. We don't want to simply be the consumers of other people's research."
The conversation, held publicly and chaired by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, was hosted by the St George's Cathedral in Cape Town in conjunction with the District Six Museum and the Michaelis School of Fine Art.
Story by Yusuf Omar. Picture by Je'nine May.
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