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Universities’ role in building society

Pedagogically a university is a higher academic institution of learning, knowledge creation and application with a universal essence of research. It has a worldwide or global aorta focused towards human capital development and subsequent societal development in an ever changing world characterised by a travelling policy of globalisation. The name university is othodoxically derived from the concept of universal application of intellect.

Fundamental socio-economic and political changes and pressures in most fields and industries have influenced educators across the globe to stay attuned to the evolving needs of the ever-shrinking economy particularly in developing countries. In order to remain vital drivers of development, progressive universities have always retrospect   on their contemporary roles so as to play the role of economic amplifiers than academic postulates.

Against this background the need to transform the university curriculum to suit different national needs and niche areas have not only become a priority but a contested terrain. This has evidently culminated in educational reform as a universal topic of interest, with particular resonance to higher education and skills development.

The past few decades have seen a steady acceleration in the rate at which knowledge is mined, shared, accumulated, diversified, packaged, disseminated and commercialised. On the other hand is the irony in the increasing obsolescence in what people know, how they access and utilise that knowledge to solve problems, and even how they solve problems. Learning has therefore become more important than ever, as it allows people, organisations, and countries not only to generate rapid variations in knowledge creation, but also to cope with such changes under a modified behavior. At the same time, learning has become increasingly demanding but absolutely necessary. Learning today requires appreciating a broad range of disciplines, and understanding the inter-relationships between basic knowledge, technical knowledge and research that is more directly relevant to users’ needs.

 In view of this, Universities need to find ways of organising learning that promote public inspiration, entrepreneurship, networking both inside and outside academic institutions and both locally and internationally within various walks of life.

Higher level learning is no longer concentrated at a single location. Admittedly, much of it still takes place in universities, particularly research universities. Higher education institutions at which knowledge production is a primary activity are of course doing a good job but the question is: Can we accurately measure that good job of which I purport? In many developed societies, scientifically and technologically related learning also takes place outside universities, for example in business settings, community settings, economic settings, political settings and interregional settings. Additionally, new knowledge is increasingly being produced and applied in ‘hybrid’ settings that may involve groups of people from different disciplines and institutions coming together to tackle specific problems but resulting in tangible deliverables with an economic impact.

The discourse about the role of universities in developing countries is important for two reasons. First, knowledge creation is a crucial contrivance for overcoming underdevelopment and poverty.

Limited intellectual added value has been and continues to be a threat to development in both sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Paradoxically more funds are spent to fight the effects of limited knowledge than to create a source of knowledge. Secondly, knowledge is not a mere investment commodity but a human right and a precursor

to any development. In fact it suffices for me to reiterate that the difference between rich and poor countries is knowledge and again the difference between rich and poor families is knowledge. 

It is therefore within the mandate of any university to mine and create knowledge for the public good. To increase their contribution to development through the production and distribution of knowledge, universities in developing countries need to transform themselves into ‘developmental universities’ with clear cut out development agenda leveraging on quality and contemporary education.

But to achieve this, other participants, such as the industry, parastatal organisations, the studentry, non-governmental organisations and government, must also be prepared to take on new responsibilities.

Assuming there is no ready-made model in existence to guide these changes I am outlining, we need to collectively create such; these will require both creativity and the willingness to engage in thoughtful dialogue, both within and outside universities.

To achieve this successfully, a strong local knowledge base hosted and guided by a lifelong learning policy need to be created and nurtured. Other universities have established a triple- Hilux system whereby the tripartite of the university, the industries and government craft a developmental agenda to facilitate intellectualism, entrepreneurship and national development.

The changing role of knowledge in society also means that the research agenda of universities should be increasingly defined through interaction and negotiation with non-academic parties, in particular government and industry. As a consequence, the line between academic and non-academic dominions should incrementally become indistinct but progressively so.

The essential contribution of knowledge to economic competitiveness and social welfare should be at the forefront of university research and should be widely recognised and funded. Central to this should be development focused research without submerging the academic rigor of which universities seem to have been traditionally established for. The role of universities in the production and dissemination of knowledge for development, need to be strategised, mapped, assessed and measured against national developmental milestones.

Developing nations need to ask themselves a number of questions about the modern roles of universities in development with a view of branding both the universities and the nations which host them. Are our universities contributing adequately to society and how do we measure that? Are universities providing an adequate return on the investment made in them? And who is entitled to judge what universities should do, and how well are they doing that?

Remarkably Botswana has one of the best universities but in an endeavor to be among the best we should ask the best questions for the best deeds. (William marks, 1999) opined thus; “Universities by their perceived elitist nature may remain forever unutilised temples if ordinary people do not develop the will to know what is it that they are doing and for whom”.

*Master Goya is the assistant Minister of Basic Education. His views do not represent that of government

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