For the first time in its 13-year history, the Reinventing Higher Education (RHE) conference hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 5 to 7 March included and accentuated the student voice throughout the event. Held at one of only three design thinking schools in the world, the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika, this was also the first time that the conference was hosted in Africa.
As primary stakeholders in higher education engagements, UCT and IE University student voices were embedded in the programme to ensure that they were fairly represented.
“We were able to speak openly about the struggles facing African university students, as well as innovate and model their idea of what higher education should be.”
Reflecting on the role of students at the gathering, Petrus Nathinge, a UCT master’s student in economic development, lauded the fact that they were invited to the table as valuable stakeholders. “We were able to speak openly about the struggles facing African university students, as well as innovate and model their idea of what higher education should be.”
Adding to this, Tatenda Dandara, linguistics master’s student at UCT, reflected on how one of the panels challenged him to think beyond the surface-level translation and phraseology of the philosophy of ubuntu.
“To discuss its impact on how we collectively envisioned what new humans we wanted to be, what new societies we wanted to build, and what new higher education needed to look like to facilitate all the values and principles we hold.”
The students’ models for a new university emerged from an immersive design thinking workshop alongside university leaders geared towards reimagining the future of higher education globally. A team of experienced design thinkers coached students and leaders through the design thinking process over a four-hour period. The models were designed with the following questions in mind: What is the purpose (mission) of a university in a complex ever-changing world? What does this university look like in 2050 (vision) if the social compact and public good are key commitments (values)?
Rethinking higher education
Today’s complex and rapidly changing world calls on universities to be agile and design and apply models that are well-equipped to respond to the world’s most pressing challenges. University students on the African continent face enormous challenges that are not – for the most part – experienced by their peers in the Global North. Students in Africa are constrained by a lack of access to resources, and currently less than 10% of youth on this continent receive higher education.
Coupled with the changes to teaching and learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a profound sense of urgency for universities to rethink and redesign their approach to education to keep and fortify their role in society.
Describing the proposed models for universities in 2050, Ally-Junior Mamorobela highlighted that “they reflect the need for innovation and creativity, with a focus on personalised learning, interdisciplinary collaboration, and practical skills development”. Mamorobela is a UCT postgraduate student in education.
Most of the student models shared a common vision towards a new, global university framework that places accessibility, inclusivity, and equity at the centre of all operations.
Student voices and visions
Ubuntu – “I am because we are” – was a key topic of discussion at the conference. “Our model for a 2050 vision of higher education focused on a future university that has principles of sustainability, collaboration, and accountability. Ubuntu and inclusivity are the main values of our future university that will impact the social well-being of our collective society,” said UCT PhD student Tizita Yismaw.
Siya Ntuntwana, a master’s student in urban design at UCT, said: “The opportunity to collaborate with vice-chancellors from around the world, through design thinking workshops, was my highlight of the event. It was a unique chance to connect with these leaders on a personal level and to see them not just as distant figures, but as individuals with whom we could engage and work together to shape the future of higher education.”
He continued: “[The model created by my group] intended to create a level playing field for all, breaking down barriers to accessing higher education and changing power dynamics between the northern and southern hemispheres while building connections with Latin America, Asia, and Australasia.”
Roché Smith Rabie, an architecture student from IE University, emphasised that while integrating the student voice into this year’s RHE gathering was a unique approach, “it should be the only approach” going forward.
Expanding on another model, IE University student Smith-Rabie said, “Our design focused on the concepts of accessibility and inclusivity into university through the understanding that solutions created by all will serve all. We also stressed that universities need to adopt a one-health approach to include not only the health of students into their scope but also that of the surrounding community and environment.”
Students also explored the concept of universities as global actors with a shared future and how frameworks should make space for this reality.
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