The University of Cape Town (UCT), in partnership with the IE University, hosted the 13th annual Reinventing Higher Education (RHE) conference at the newly opened Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika from 5 to 7 March.
Launched in 2010 at IE University, the RHE symposium aims to provide a platform where university administrators, policy makers, entrepreneurs and top businesspeople, academics, student representatives and media experts can meet to discuss the past, present and future of higher education.
Themed “New Humans, New Society, New Higher Education”, the 2023 symposium focused on addressing key questions around the values behind continual and rapid change within the higher education sector.
“The focus of the conference will highlight how we can create more open, inclusive, equitable and collaborative higher education systems.”
According to Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Sue Harrison, hosting the RHE event provides an excellent opportunity for UCT to facilitate discussion, showcase its achievements and learn from other institutions around creating a more equitable and inclusive higher education environment.
“As UCT, we are proud to be co-hosting this year’s RHE conference, which is a platform where key players in higher education on the African continent and globally will discuss major challenges facing higher education.
“Overall, the focus of the conference will highlight how we can create more open, inclusive, equitable and collaborative higher education systems,” she said.
The symposium kicked off with a keynote address by former UCT vice-chancellor and political activist Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Following this introduction, the day’s panel discussions focused on the role of global universities in creating a more equitable world.
The second conversation of the day, moderated by Financial Times Education editor, Andrew Jack, explored how higher education leaders drive diversity and inclusion for a more equitable future at their institutions.
Discussing the topic were University of Ghana Vice-Chancellor Professor Nana Aba Appiah Amfo, Imperial College London Vice-Provost for Education and Student Experience Professor Peter Haynes, Dean of the School of Education and Development at the University of Miami Dr Laura Kohn-Wood and Singapore Management University Vice-Provost for Education Professor Venky Shankararaman.
Speaking around what diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mean as well as how these issues can be tackled, Dr Kohn-Wood noted that the excellence that results from creating a more equitable environment within higher education institutions should be a motivation in and of itself.
“There is an intellectual impetus for diversity. An institution needs to look like the population in which it is embedded. Higher education is about producing and disseminating knowledge and creativity, and educating the next generation of knowledge producers,” she explained.
“In order to do that, you need to know that your knowledge approach is true. It is absolutely imperative that people from all perspectives, backgrounds – all kinds of diversity – are included in that knowledge production. Without this diversity, you end up having a very limited type of knowledge.
“So, in this way, there’s an intellectual impetus for diversity and to be a diverse campus means that you are an excellent campus in the business of higher education.”
Time and money – major challenges
While diversity can be a great driver of excellence, the panel also noted that there are various trade-offs that need to be made when prioritising DEI. In this paradigm, time and institutional finances are particularly challenging.
“If you are making the effort to enrol students from economically challenging backgrounds, or who have disabilities, it means that you must have policies in place. It means that you must offer support systems and guidance so that those students are not left behind by the larger population of students,” said Professor Amfo.
“When you ask how to improve diversity, one of the best ways is to tackle unconscious bias by slowing down the decision-making process.”
“Then there is also the matter of attracting international faculty and fellows from the diaspora to come and spend time at our institution. All of these efforts create costs that the institution needs to cover. At a state university, especially, you have to be innovative about these policies and how to bring in funding.”
Adding to this, Professor Haynes highlighted the issue of time. “There are certainly issues of finance, but there are also trade-offs to recognise in terms of time. We certainly have an issue with workloads as a result of external regulation upon us, but also because of internal choices,” he said.
“The business of the university is being made more burdensome for our staff, including academics. So, when you ask how to improve diversity, one of the best ways is to tackle unconscious bias by slowing down the decision-making process. But that requires much more time, which is one of the biggest challenges.”
I am, because you are
Complementing the conversation around how institutional leaders can create a more diverse, inclusive and equitable higher education environment, the third panel delved into the topic of ubuntu – “I am, because you are” – and how this concept can be used to drive DEI globally.
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dar es Salaam Professor William-Andey Lazaro Anangisye, Deputy Vice-Rector of Research, Innovation and Strategic Partnerships at the University of Nigeria Oluyemisi Bamgbose, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pretoria Professor Tawana Kupe and Vice-Chancellor of the Mauritius African Leadership University Dr Nhlanhla Thwala made up the all-African panel.
In her opening remarks, UCT Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation, Student Affairs and Responsiveness Professor Elelwani Ramugondo, who moderated the session, pointed out that the concept of ubuntu highlights that competition between the individual and the collective is a false dichotomy.
“We are now focused on creating employable graduates.”
To this point, Professor Anangisye noted that the “vocationalisation” of education and teaching is an obstacle for entrenching the collective spirit of ubuntu in higher education institutions.
“With liberalisation, the focus of education has changed. We are now focused on creating employable graduates. Once you make that the focus, it inculcates competitiveness among students, among staff and even between institutions. In other words, we have moved from the collective approach to academic life to an individualistic approach,” he explained.
This idea was reinforced by Bamgbose, who noted that encouraging interdisciplinary study is a boon for ubuntu. “One of the things we do in higher education, especially when it comes to students in their first year, is to get our students to relate to one another.
“At [the University of Nigeria], we have all of our students doing courses together regardless of their faculty; they get to know about each other and about their courses. We call this the gum-and-tongue policy. It’s part of the philosophy that we belong to the gum and the outside belongs to the tongue, and that we cannot live in isolation.
“So, whatever we do, we must relate that with the society and the community in which we live. By ensuring that our students are able to see different aspects of life through study, we ensure that they are always able to relate to one another and see themselves in each other and the communities they serve.”
Reimagining institutions for societal change
Professor Kupe noted that while the philosophy behind ubuntu came to be in simpler times, it remains relevant in the modern age. The spirit of ubuntu, he said, is a driver to ethical management and social change.
“Ubuntu evokes things like empathy, collectivism, the public good and community spirit.”
“Some may look at ubuntu and think that it is an outdated African philosophy that was only effective in very small agricultural communities before capitalism came about. But ubuntu evokes things like empathy, collectivism, the public good and community spirit.
“It is about individuality versus individualism. Individuality is developing yourself, but in the context of community. Individualism is the pursuit of your own interests, which often leads to unethical practices in management,” he explained.
In this regard, it is the responsibility of institutions of higher education to ensure that they incorporate the spirit of ubuntu into every aspect of their operations to produce impactful graduates and academic work.
“We must aim to produce students who are well-rounded and socially conscious citizens who are going to impact the world. As universities, we must be acutely aware of the necessity for academia to reposition and reinvent itself as active agents of change to produce impact in society,” he added.
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