Universities can use their influence to tackle inequalities



Universities are the most influential institutions in societies around the world. They are centers of ideas, discoveries, technological development and culture and engines of the local, national and global economy.

As such, they also have the potential to perpetuate inequality and social injustice, according to Dr. Ira Harkavy, associate vice president and founding director of the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania in the States. -United.

Harkavy was a keynote speaker at the Second National Conference on Higher Education in Universities of South Africa (USAf), which focused on “the engaged university”.

It was the largest higher education conference held in South Africa, with over 1,700 people registered to attend the hybrid event held at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus for three days, from October 6 to 8.

The conference addressed existential questions in the higher education sector: who owns the university? What is his role ? Where to do after the COVID-19 pandemic?

Hosted by the USAf, the Council on Higher Education in South Africa and the South African Department of Higher Education and Training, the conference was framed by the strong inequalities in the sector which were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fruitful collaborations

In his opening remarks, USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa described the academic sector as having reached a breaking point last year, due to the pandemic, which has highlighted glaring inequalities. between staff, students, universities and sub-sectors.

To get through the 2020 academic year, public universities have had to work with technical and vocational schools and schools, businesses, the private higher education sector and student unions. Such collaboration had been “fruitful” and would hopefully be the seed of new partnerships, he said.

Harkavy, who spoke on “The Democratic Civic University,” said the COVID-19 pandemic had shed light on racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. There had also been attacks on science, knowledge and democracy, as evidenced by the capture of the Capitol in the United States on January 6, 2021. He described a “decline in confidence in major institutions”.

He then turned to the recent history of universities in the United States. Traditional neoliberal universities were elitist in their way of codifying leadership – they were not open to diverse populations, and ideas of engagement were chosen by faculty rather than students.

The neoliberal university of entrepreneurship, he said, emphasized knowledge “not for the public good but for commercialism” and profit. Students were not allowed to be co-producers but were clients. The goal was not to improve the world. The measure of success, on the contrary, was financial, based on private benefits and on obtaining employment.

Reduce inequalities

The democratic civic university, on the other hand, sees its role as “reducing historical and market-based inequalities,” he said.

The universal problems of poverty, poor education, inadequate housing and unequal access to health care are manifested in local communities.

A democratic civic university engages with the community in a democratic partnership. It “implements a program focused on community issues and the program becomes a text and a test as the university seeks to improve the life of its own community.” The emphasis is on change and improvement of life and there is also a mutual transformation of the university.

The purpose of a democratic civic university is to create community partnerships, educate ethically and engage with empathy and co-produce knowledge to improve the world and democracy. The democratic process means working with communities, learning from them, co-creating and listening to voices.

Communities also have experts. “Our neighbors are not the means to an end, a subsidy, but an end in itself,” Harkavy said.

From this approach, positive changes occur in communities and the university benefits by being aligned with communities in its knowledge production. According to Harkavy, the Netter Center at the University of Pennsylvania has embarked on three models for solving societal problems, and the emphasis is on the Kindergarten through higher education curriculum:

• Academic-based community service that offers credit-based courses in which students and faculty work with communities to improve, for example, nutrition. They work with nurses, social workers and members of the community.

• Community schools assisted by the university. More than 3,800 students work with eight or nine schools in West Philadelphia to help about 4,000 people. The impact is integrated and aggregated.

• Democratic anchor model whereby the university is engaged with the community in terms of employment, procurement and real estate. The economic, academic and curricular aspects are brought together.

Harkavy said his university is engaged in “critical research” that forces people to rethink, reinvent and redo. Staff are challenged to find ways to link their academic work to improving lives.

Referring to the “Noah approach”, Harkavy said university departments should not be given awards or grants for “predicting and describing when it will rain”; there should be prizes for building arches and implementing change.

He said that although his university has progressed to become a democratic civic university, it still has “miles and miles” to go.

Referring to the recent launch of the Global Cooperation for the Democratic Mission of Higher Education and movements such as the University Social Responsibility Network and the University Open Society Network, he urged all universities to get involved in global movements to eliminate inequalities and bring about change.

“We need a global movement. This is not rocket science. It’s more difficult than rocket science. We have to work together and work with the communities, ”he said.

Asked by Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, whether universities are complicit or innocent in perpetuating inequalities, he said: “In various ways, universities contribute to the dramatic inequalities we face. They are not making the contributions they could make, which are essentially educating students about citizenship.

Shirk responsibility

“If they focus on commercialism issues, what lessons are they teaching undergraduates? They are accomplices because they do not take issues of racism and social justice and do not bring them to the fore. They have not made these issues a priority. They are not only accomplices, but shirk a fundamental social and intellectual responsibility. “

He said universities are powerful in terms of human resources, intellectual capital and economic resources, and maintaining the status quo will only make matters worse. Becoming a democratic civic university, on the other hand, could have a profound impact and produce better academic work.

Regarding the reach of universities within our societies, he said: “Universities train teachers and teachers of teachers. Everyone is touched by academia in every area we can think of… They shape the values, aspirations and intellectual development of entire societies. No institution is more important than a university.

But, of course, there was room for improvement.

“If you don’t change the current [universities], poor and under-represented minorities… will receive a second-rate education. It is crucial that universities engage so that we provide all our population with a first-rate education for democratic citizenship and provide knowledge for a democratic society and world.

The same argument applies to South African universities – if students are left out, it will perpetuate racism and inequality.

Referring to John Dewey, who alluded to democracy starting at home, Harkavy said democracy isn’t just about voting – it’s a way of life. In keeping with this analogy, the “home” is the democratic civic university that promotes partnerships with local communities as a means of dealing with societal problems.

News from academia – Africa was Universities South Africa’s media partner at the conference.


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