Contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education"
An exchange on the essay A Higher Calling for Higher Education

Shirley Walters

Kudos to Cristina Escrigas for her succinct overview of the major issues facing universities. Universities need to change in order to give more effective leadership towards “another world we want.” Here, I would like to amplify three short/medium-term interventions which are shaped by my forty years of experience in the South African university system, where I have been immersed mainly in a historically black university that played an important role in the liberation struggle and in processes of democratizing the country.

1. A Critique of African University Rankings

The Times Higher Education proposes that an African-specific ranking system be designed for universities in Africa. This is an effort to revise a system designed for institutions in the rich developed world. Critical literature shows that ranking of universities incentivizes them to support the status quo in an uncritical fashion disconnected from broader society. Rankings are inclined to encourage competition rather than cooperation. In considering the ranking of African universities, questions to ask are, what are the roles of universities in societies across Africa, and what is the point of introducing a hierarchy of these universities? To the latter question, we might answer that there is none, that we do not want to foster competition when Africa needs collaboration. The creation of uniform indicators across the diversity of contexts can encourage unquestioning consumption of university league tables by the public and universities themselves. However, if we are to rank, what could constitute an alternative measurement practice that takes environmental and social justice, collaboration, and feminist politics as starting points? Engaging broadly across many different African contexts through deeply democratic processes around this question could make an important start to alternative ways of thinking about “social responsibility” of universities across local and global contexts.

2. A Transformation Barometer

There are processes currently underway in South Africa to create a higher education “transformation barometer.” There is a push for transformation from both government and civil society in the wake of various students’ movements. Transformation includes radical change in the demographics of professoriate, “decolonization” of curricula and research agendas, an embrace intellectual contributions from Africa, elimination of racism and sexism and all other forms of unjust discrimination, improvement in academic success rates amongst black students, expansion of student support, promotion of socially just pedagogies, democratic and non-repressive institutional cultures, and accountable governance and management efficiencies. Of course, “transformation” is highly contested, but despite the slipperiness of the concept, a broad meaning-making frame is emerging that can facilitate the fundamental reconstitution and re-expression of the role of the university in wider society. The idea of the barometer has limitations and so needs to be subjected to perennial questions about “transformation.” As such, the idea of a perennially questioned barometer presents a potential starting point for a useful “measurement practice.”

3. Glocal Citizenship Education

There are scholar-activists, both students and staff, who, against many odds, are constructing alternative ways of living and learning. They are developing new organizational and epistemological models that counter the separation of people and institutions from one another; counter the separation of feelings from thinking; embrace “heads, hearts, and hands”; and strive to build community. Glocal citizenship education involves, amongst other things, a learning of empathy for people and environments and the interconnected realities in which we all exist on one planet. So where is glocal, democratic citizenship learned? From the experiences in South Africa and elsewhere, one site which is underutilized as an informal learning space for students, academics, managers, and workers is student- and staff-led movements. Change will only come through activism of various kinds by members of the university community; therefore, student-, worker-, and scholar-activists, whose individual and collective involvements are contributing to change, need support and affirmation. Integration of activist orientations into a “transformation barometer” offers a possibility to sustain commitments for social, economic, and environmental justice, thus encouraging its “mainstreaming” within universities.

When thinking of universities and their social responsibilities, I align with the sentiment of Lilla Watson, an aboriginal Australian woman, when she says, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Shirley Walters
Shirley Walters is Professor of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Western Cape, South Africa. She is the director of the Traditions of Popular Education project and vice president for Africa on the Executive of the International Council for Adult Education.

Shirley Walters, contribution to GTI Roundtable "On Higher Education," Great Transition Initiative (June 2016),

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