"If universities get their knowledge production function right in the contemporary context, they will be able to improve learning in their teaching and that will be their most important contribution in terms of service," said Dr Rajesh Tandon during his Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture.
Speaking at UCT on 26 August, Tandon said, "For me, engaged scholarship is about co-construction of knowledge which is relevant to society's challenges of our time, like the four strategic initiatives that the Vice-Chancellor has presented to all of us at UCT.
"It is this pillar on which I would like to propose engaged scholarship rests."
Tandon's lecture, titled 'Knowledge Democracy: Reclaiming Voice for All', proposed that society should interrogate the idea of the knowledge economy in a way that allows for democratic and equitable production, dissemination, and use of knowledge.
In his introduction, Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price had already alluded to the concept of knowledge democracy, saying: "We talk about knowledge economy, but is there something parallel to that that might be called knowledge democracy?"
The contemporary context
Setting the scene, Tandon said we live in an era of contradictions. In the midst of "incredible prosperity", we continue to have "structurally embedded poverty", with more than one billion people surviving on less than US$1.25 a day.
There is plenty of food to go around, he added, yet 40% of children are malnourished.
Was the modern economy's gospel doing as much good as it did harm?
"We have been fed a concept of improvement based largely on growth," he said. This growth is typically measured by a country's annual gross domestic product (GDP), which is the sum of a country's financial transactions over a year. Was this too narrow a definition?
China, noted Tandon, had recently caused many Western economies to shift uncomfortably as they watched the People's Republic consistently swell its GDP in the past few decades.
"At the same time, we forget that you can't walk in Beijing without masks anymore; the sunshine has disappeared from the skies in Beijing; it is so polluted," he said.
The only race in town?
Growth's dominance of the economics hierarchy suggested the "TINA" factor was at play, Tandon said. TINA stands for "there is no alternative", which was a slogan former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used to persuade nations of the folly of any system that wasn't based on free-market capitalism.
He seemed bemused that certain societies uncritically accepted the World Bank's 1999 declaration that only knowledge economies were advanced economies.
"It's amazing how this race [to a knowledge economy] is something we have all bought into, as if this is the only race in town."
It would be prudent, he suggested, to assess who gained and who lost from this knowledge economy.
Privatised knowledge benefits few
Knowledge industries had workers and elites, Tandon argued. The rise of patents as a gold standard for universities and businesses rendered knowledge a commodity.
"So you have propertied classes and property-less masses when it comes to knowledge as a commodity. It creates the divide of the haves and the have-nots, and it creates therefore control over knowledge in ways that [create] not just power ... but also wealth," said Tandon.
Asymmetries in knowledge politics
Inequitable access to higher education, plus the digital divide, exacerbated unequal access to the "means of production and dissemination of knowledge", he argued.
Then there was language hegemony, which Tandon referred to as "Victorious English". While learning English gave one access to global knowledge, he feared that this sometimes occurred at the expense of ideas best expressed in other languages.
"As languages die, world views die, because languages reflect a world view."
Towards a knowledge democracy
He also argued that diverse knowledge should be sought beyond academic boundaries: such as indigenous and experiential knowledge that may not have been published in peer-reviewed journals.
"Critical thinking is a natural human phenomenon," he said, adding that opinions that are not 'certified' by postgraduate degrees are often unfairly dismissed, with damaging consequences.
Tandon also distinguished between "ownership" and "trusteeships" of resources.
Pre-colonisation, indigenous people used natural resources as a source of nourishment, but now the commons were seen as a source of income to be exploited. It was the same with knowledge.
"In my view, knowledge commons as a public good is a source of nourishment for all humanity, and if it is allowed to be captured by a few for the purpose of exploitation ... then we create this problem."
Where do universities come in?
He said, "UNESCO, in its 2009 higher education conference, made in my view a somewhat provocative declaration when it said the function of universities is to produce ethical citizens of the future."
This meant approaching research not only through the lens of the traditional disciplines, but also through the lens of the society that would ultimately benefit from new knowledge. Farmers in India had benefited from an arrangement made with a local university whereby the farmers sought answers to daily challenges and master's students tackled these questions as part of their degrees.
"Outside academe, disciplines don't exist. Problems and challenges exist," he said.
Pointing to UCT's Knowledge Co-op, Tandon said it was another example that demonstrated that the needs of society and academia were not irreconcilable.
Historically, and notably in the colonial period that began a few hundred years ago, universities were geared to producing and maintaining elites, says Tandon.
"Surely in the 21st century we can have universities that play a role in producing active, informed and ethical citizens, as UNESCO's call suggests. I want to submit to you that this will happen if we use the perspective of knowledge democracy as the fulcrum of our engaged scholarship."
Dr Rajesh Tandon is UNESCO Chair in community health research and social responsibility in higher education, and is president of Participatory Research in Asia.
Story by Yusuf Omar. Image by Michael Hammond.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Please view the republishing articles page for more information.