Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update
HELM Summit Visualisation

Not bouncing back but bouncing forward: South African higher education in 2021 and beyond

At the end of a year that has demoralised and literally devastated higher education globally, it was a buoyant Minister Blade Nzimande that opened the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) virtual summit. And with good reason. The economic impact of CoVID-19 on South Africa--who was already in a recession before the initial lockdown--has been catastrophic. Yet, at the end of the year, all 26 public institutions are still standing. All had, to a greater or lesser extent, managed to move curricula from face-to-face to online modalities. The sector had survived R1 billion being removed from its annual budget and some research institutions had been part of proactive and creative interventions addressing the pandemic. They had also participated in the search for a vaccine.

The theme of the conference was Leading and managing the University in Africa, for disruption, complexity, and change and the Minister began by drawing on the familiar challenges that beset the sector. From the lack of black, women academics, ongoing historical inequality between institutions, the need for non-violent conflict management. All these, he asked, to be placed high of the summit agenda.

The Honourable Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation addressing the HELM summit.
Dr Blade Nzimande
The Honourable Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation addressing the HELM summit.

Surprise surprise

What was not expected was what came next. According to the Department of Higher Education and Training's (DHET's) early research findings, university students were doing better academically than last year. The expectation had been that throughput rate would be dismal for 2020 and yet the opposite appeared to have happened. "Our initial assessment" said the Minister, "indicates that during this period we had positive impact in many areas in respect of (i) the multimodal, blended approach to teaching and learning, (ii) opportunities provided to students to learn in different ways, and (iii) multiple assessment methods".

This positive result has prompted a number of new and striking developments in the DHET strategy. The Minister intends "to set up a Ministerial Task Team to help us develop strategies to make online learning a reality in our sector beyond the existential challenges of the CoVID-19 pandemic". It is intended that the task team has a wide mandate that includes technological opportunities but that also interrogates the new curricula that will be needed in the future and even the way that universities will be accessed by students.

In what became a refrain over the next two days he perceptively encapsulated what needs to happen to higher education after CoVID-19. The sector cannot and must not bounce back after the pandemic has passed. It must "bounce forward" into a re-imagined and re-vitalised future for the sector.

New leaders too

For the Minister, these complex disruptions will require a new kind of leadership at our universities. Here, he specifically spoke to the important partnership between the DHET, USAf and HELM with the latter being a crucial driver in ensuring a new kind of leadership in the sector. Speaking of HELM's Women in Leadership programme which is running successfully in 2020/2021 and the collaboration with the ETDP SETA for the University Lecturer Capacity Development, he noted, "there is no doubt in my mind that HELM will grow from strength to strength with these dynamic partnerships and collaborative ventures".

He also praised the format of the HELM summit which was organised around guiding, difficult questions that allowed participants to respond in new, nuanced and creative ways to the complexity and uncertainty with which they were confronted.

The resilient, fragile higher education sector

The CEO of USAf, Professor Ahmed Bawa, began his reflections by briefly covering the events of 2020 from the "grounding to a halt of all institutions" in March and then the reboot using a range of teaching modalities that displayed the resilience of all 26 institutions who are still on track to complete the academic year. The re-purposing of budgets to go online and to provide for students as they gradually returned to their universities, the huge learning curve for staff and students to adapt and become proficient in this remote learning space, the impact on research projects-all these proved "the resilience and fragility" of our universities.

Professor Ahmed Bawa
Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf CEO, talking to the complexity of the university that has been exposed by the onslaught of CoVID-19.

Professor Bawa then touched on the real surprise that came about as the pandemic took hold. "What we saw was the huge inter-dependence of institutions among themselves. We have seen unprecedented collaboration between universities in trying to address the enormous challenge opposed by CoVID-19". As pleasing to Professor Bawa was that the strategic partnerships fostered by emergency and necessity offered a glimpse of a much larger set of inter-related connections that involved the coming together of the DHET, the Council on Higher Education, National Student Financial Aid Scheme, USAf, the Technical and Vocational Education and Training sector and the universities all "working together to create, perhaps for the first time, a supportive higher education ecosystem".

A broken social compact

While praising the nimbleness of the universities, Professor Bawa also touched on the fact that the ongoing inequalities within the sector--typified by the #FeesMust Fall movement--have lasted since the White Paper on Education in 1997 and point to "a broken social compact and we have to use this time to work towards a new social compact."

"CoVID-19 pre-existed the arrival of the virus. The virus was just a catalyst that gave rise to the numerous challenges and inequalities that have always existed in our higher education system."

Finally, in the process of re-imagining itself, Professor Bawa, talking to the complexity of the university that has been exposed by the onslaught of CoVID-19, said the university is going to have to dedicate itself to the crucial task of re-imagining South African society in its entirety.

The physicist on complexity

Reverting to an analogy from his own discipline, physics, Professor Bawa proffered the notion that the university is a complex system, made up of lots of interacting parts that are constantly interacting with each other. "At any single time", he points out, "these interacting systems can slide towards chaos or can work towards rich, cohesive systems...that means that we have to design for complexity. We cannot and must not be reductive in our solutions. We desperately need integrated solutions."

In concluding, Professor Bawa pointed out that there was a need for a soft touch. "Because a small part of the system can have a catastrophic impact on the whole, there is a need for a soft touch that can, over time, steer the university towards an integrated system that is, at once, complex and a thing of beauty." For the next two days some of the best minds in the country and beyond pushed towards describing what that thing of 'integrated beauty' would look like.

Although the summit only allowed for limited participation, all sessions have been recorded and will be available for viewing on YouTube in the coming weeks.

Patrick Fish is an independent writer commissioned by Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM). Rebecca Hater, who crafted the artwork at the top, was commissioned by HELM to capture each day's proceedings in visual art.

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