Amidst the complex challenges that South Africa faces, our universities stand as potential catalysts for innovative solutions and a path toward progress. Despite the formidable obstacles confronting higher education, South Africa boasts world-class researchers and research institutions.
Surprisingly, many organisations, including state-owned enterprises, often opt for international advisory firms in these trying economic times. While discussions on social partnerships typically revolve around business, labour, and government, with only sporadic references to civil society, we should recognise the untapped potential of integrating universities into South Africa’s productivity landscape.
The contemporary global landscape presents both threats and opportunities for universities. On one hand, universities hold the promise of providing a scientific alternative to the allure of populism and political expediency. In a world besieged by fake news and post-truth narratives, universities bear the mantle of defending knowledge against the onslaught of epistemic relativism. Unfortunately, research expertise often faces unwarranted skepticism and labeling as “so-called experts.” Furthermore, the rise of technological deep fakes and generative artificial intelligence compounds the challenges of distinguishing genuine knowledge from misinformation. Only universities possess the institutional culture, heritage, and capabilities necessary for scientific advancement on the scale demanded by our contemporary society.
Whether driven by intellectual curiosity or societal necessity, the relentless pursuit of knowledge dissemination offers a beacon of hope—a path toward peace and a means to temper self-righteous passions through structured inquiry.
Universities now have a unique opportunity to bolster their intellectual resilience through global institutional connectivity. To realise the full potential of the scientific project, universities must adopt a global perspective. Such global consciousness can inspire daring inquiry at both the individual and institutional levels, ultimately shaping national policies.
In South Africa, for instance, academic freedom enjoys explicit protection under the national Constitution, Section 16. Institutions must, in the pursuit of scientific progress, encourage researchers to explore current and future realms with intellectual fearlessness and social empathy.
The development of dynamic, well-integrated global epistemic communities, exemplified by networks like the International Network of Universities, enhances the resilience of the global knowledge system. In this precarious era, institutional, intellectual, social, and ecological resilience are essential for crafting a more desirable global future. For South Africa to thrive as a competitive global player, universities remain an invaluable, yet underutilised, asset.
Recently, I had the privilege of facilitating discussions among university presidents and vice-chancellors at the INU Leaders’ Summit in Japan, titled ‘The Role of Universities in Internationally Changing Political and Social Contexts.’ The diversity of academic backgrounds and social contexts among participants enriched the dialogue, creating a fertile ground for diverse perspectives. Delegates embraced the Chatham House Rule, fostering trust and open exploration.
The summit aimed to rally support for the INU mandate, encompassing shared best practices, global citizenship, togetherness, sustainability, and embedding technology. As we deliberated on how universities can navigate political challenges while making a societal impact and integrating education and research for the common good, the importance of social engagement emerged as a critical success factor. Robust epistemic communities, dedicated to upholding the integrity of knowledge, offer universities a unique opportunity to engage with other social actors such as government, business, civil society, the media and labour, effectively.
The program design included dialogue interspersed with experiential elements, such as the poignant Peace Memorial Ceremony with a moment of silence to mark the devastation. This event underscored the importance of universities in promoting peace, extending beyond the absence of war to encompass a broader scope. The ceremony garnered substantial media coverage, including by Reuters.
One of the summit’s significant outcomes was the public commitment of global university leaders, who signed the International Network of Universities Charter 2023 in the presence of students from around the world. The charter reaffirms the commitment to inclusion, equality, diversity, academic freedom, and democracy protection. It underscores the power of collaboration across borders and cultures, enriching the educational experience for students and staff alike.
The charter’s principles compel university leaders to promote democratic rights, provide a safe environment for free expression, champion freedom of speech and inquiry, and influence decision-makers for social justice. Furthermore, it emphasises the role of universities in realising the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and giving voice to marginalized groups. This commitment represents a significant step towards addressing global challenges collectively and shaping a brighter future for all.
The institutional, intellectual, social and ecological resilience is most acutely needed for the development of a more desirable global future. For South Africa to be a competitive global role player, universities offer untapped potential.