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Repositioning African universities to respond to contemporary challenges and opportunities



This is a keynote address that was delivered by South Africa’s University of Pretoria Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe – a Zimbabwean academic – at the Regional Universities Forum (RuForum)’s 18 Annual General

Meeting at the University Zimbabwe (UZ) in Harare on Thursday.

During the event there were also related activities at Rainbow Towers Hotel and launch of the UZ’s Innovation Hub.


GOOD afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to speak at RuForum’s 18th Annual General Meeting. It comes at a time where the need for African Universities to respond to our continent’s contemporary challenges is greater than ever before, and we are called to mobilise our collective talents and efforts to make a real difference towards our shared future.

The nature of our challenges and opportunities

We are all fully aware of the unprecedented complexity and uncertainty the world currently faces. Shocks to already vulnerable systems were clearly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we are realising that disruptions of similar magnitude are inevitable and will be experienced more frequently. A “new unusual” that is dynamic and uncertain has overtaken a “new normal”.

In a globally connected landscape, and across political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental domains and ecosystems, we experience and share the consequences of issues and phenomena that arise locally, regionally or globally.

Political conflict, rising populism, and corruption are putting democratic systems and global rule-making under stress, aggravated by misinformation, disinformation and the rejection of science and facts.

Worsened by a crisis of global economic systems, the triple scourges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, and in particular high youth unemployment, are ubiquitous to the continent, and are more prevalent than in many parts of the world.

There are frequent intersections and interdependencies between the issues, as well as paradoxical implications.

For instance, forced, reluctant or voluntary migration is a frequent occurrence related to political, economic or social instability – acting either in isolation or in concert. The interdependent nature of issues reflects complexity, and the consequences or their interactions adds to it. Technological shifts with digital transformation present a paradox of profound opportunities to influence models of education and access thereof, but this is countered by high costs of technology and unequal access in the digital divide.

In the African context, the challenges are magnified, largely driven by how globally connected the world has become, and the stark power imbalances that contribute to the current vulnerability of systems in Africa. These drivers further constrain our ability to recover from shocks.

Examples of how this plays out are myriad, and I will only highlight a few. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on weak economic and social systems sharply aggravated existing societal fault lines, and drove worsening inequality. At the same time, nationalistic and protectionist agendas from the global north inhibited African access to preventative vaccines until much later in the course of the pandemic. In another example, the threat to global food security arising from the current political conflict and war in Ukraine will be felt most keenly in Africa.

Similarly, the impacts of climate change, driven by actors beyond the continent, are likely to be acutely felt in Africa. In higher education, imbalances and inequalities are clearly evident in macrosystemic structures, accessibility, resourcing, capabilities and access to knowledge.

Notwithstanding such challenges, our untapped opportunities are profound. The African potential is vast. We are endowed with immensely talented and resilient people, and our young population has the potential to be our greatest strength. Beyond people, our continent holds extensive natural resources, which in some circumstances are critical to global agendas such as just energy transitions and sustainable development.

Our universities are well placed to create spaces for dialogue where multiple voices can contribute to a better understanding of the problems we face, and can also begin to create the necessary solutions. While, at this time, we may not be fully positioned to fulfil this role, it is essential that we recognise our potential, as we seek to increase our influence and contribution to the public good.

But recognising potential is not enough – we need to fully realise it, as we seek to turnaround the many dimensions where we lag behind the rest of the world in higher education, including the performance metrics commonly cited.

More importantly, as institutions of higher education, we are from Africa and for Africa. We exist because of, and within our multifaceted cultures and societies, and it follows that we should be functioning for the good of society and its development. This calls for us to ensure and increase our relevance and efforts towards greater societal impact, characterised by inclusivity and clearly evident contributions to just inclusive and sustainable development.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, and our own African Union Agenda 2063, through their collaborative design and aspirational outlook, collectively provide us with a good and accepted framework to shape our actions in a way that is relevant to society.

So now, the question is not whether we will achieve our ambitions, but what will we do to achieve them? As we reflect on ourselves and on our shared future, along with owning the challenges facing our continent, I believe that with our embedded knowledge and inherent talent, we are best placed to own the solutions. Solutions from Africa, and for the world.

In this regard the new African university must be involved in a double act of transformation – transforming itself, and at the same time transforming society. Without this double act, the credibility and legitimacy of our universities as a transformative actors will be questioned and our impact blunted. Transformation parameters such as diversity, inclusion and equity are therefore critically important – institutionally and societally alike.

As we explore what it will take, I would like to reflect on a few themes that I believe are important to our conversation and to our journey. It is also a necessity that Africa must h avesustainable universities –  well-governed and managed, well-funded and well resourced that enjoy academic freedom and inquiry as well as institutional autonomy in order to better deliver on national and continental goals.

Poor governance and management, lack of resources and infrastructure and narrow political control disables African universities from creating high quality knowledge from African perspectives that can effectively address African problems.

Collaborating as equal partners

Central to reimagining and repositioning ourselves – as intentionally conscious agents and actors in transformative sustainable change in and for society is valuing and embracing collaboration as a partnership of equals – as peers and across the wider span of global networks that we participate in.

As a collective we are more able to leverage our strengths and capabilities to address complexity and the “wicked” challenges we face, and demonstrate relevance and responsiveness to the contexts in which we are embedded. It is the only way we can deliver societal impact that creates pathways for successful societies in the future. I believe that collaboration between and across universities must change at a rapid pace.

We must seek to shift from solely generating knowledge, to translating that knowledge into solutions which matter and make a difference. This requires open knowledge systems, and cannot be done by the traditional silo-driven university in isolation.

Repositioning African universities compels us to be in touch with societal needs, and to master the ability to collaborate within ourselves and across our boundaries. We must be defined by our broad, inclusive and futuristic outlook, being connected to peers and other stakeholders, for mutual benefit and mutual empowerment in the interests of the public good.

Inspired and aspiring to be in concert with others as drivers and agents of change. This “next generation” of African universities must also be futures literate – able to suspend existing mental models and paradigms of the present, in order to envisage the future in different and unconstrained ways. Step change, with relevant and truly innovative solutions, will flow from the tapping and utilisation of talent in multiplicative ways, and with multiple streams of value.

Transformational leadership

Leadership is well recognised as a prerequisite to success. In our context, though, this is not any form of leadership. African universities and our continent require transformational change, and this calls for African transformational leadership across our institutions. Such leadership is values-based, sets the institutional direction and tone, and shapes our university cultures in ways that create the conditions for all to thrive and reach their full potential. It is also future literate, in touch with society with its dynamic and evolving needs.

Transformational leadership sets the scene for agency, where our institutions are filled with change agents who drive and amplify transformation through the work that they do in teaching, learning, research and engagement.

To strengthen our transformational leadership, we must be intentional – within our individual institutions and as a collective. This includes becoming clearer and developing a common language on the leadership attributes of the African transformational leader; identifying potential leaders across the university community, from students to academics and professional staff; and developing programmes to develop our current and future leaders in higher education. These programmes could be joint initiatives across our institutions, where we co-design approaches, share resources and learn from each other.

Growing and keeping our talent

Critical to our future competitiveness and responsiveness is how effectively we identify, develop and retain talent within our network of universities. Across African universities there is a wealth of talent, readily seen in the success of our compatriots in the diaspora.

Identifying, valuing and nurturing this talent at home, along with embedding a sense of citizenship and commitment to the continent is a necessary starting point. Considering talent through an educational ecosystem lens, identifying and nurturing talent begins at high school and undergraduate levels, all the way to postgraduates and emerging academics and researchers.

If we see talent as a shared pool across our institutions, we are positioned to intentionally established shared programmes and research initiatives, with increased mobility within our immediate and extended networks.

Strengthening relationships and talent development initiatives within extended networks is particularly important to our talent pool developing a global outlook, while not being lost to our system. Pathways to development are also multiplied, as we tap into the different areas of excellence across our networks.

Expanding access and growing the talent pool inevitably comes at a cost – to both institutions and participating individuals. We are all aware of the institutional cost, and in a human-centred way we must be mindful that participants need to survive before they can thrive. With the high levels of poverty and inequality we experience, much of our talent is drawn from socially and economically disadvantaged communities, and do not have the means to sustain the long and hard development journey to excellence.

Such bold aspirations for local capacity building with global exposure requires innovative resourcing in collaboration with governments, the private sector and other funders towards developing capability within and for the continent. By crafting a narrative of funding as an investment critical to our shared future, we will need to have a clear investment case that clarifies the value, and begins to quantify returns and impact in a more tangible way.

Moreover, institutional and organisational innovation is needed, rather than just focusing on efficient management of dwindling resources, or pandering to those demanding more skills training and less democracy-inducing education.

Advancing a trans-disciplinary agenda

Our positioning must advance a trans-disciplinary agenda anchored on disciplinary excellence as a key means to navigate complexity. This entails developing the necessary attributes to enable transdisciplinary work at individual and institutional levels.

Discipline-based capability with the ability to look beyond disciplinary boundaries is a necessary foundation. Empathy and social skills are needed to engage others and mobilise them to achieve their own and the institution’s objectives; to enhance collaboration; and to harness the multiple and diverse talents needed to resolve complex challenges.

Openness, inclusion and diversity are embraced. A societal outlook, being in tune with the dynamics of our operating landscapes, and coupled with futures literacy ensures that the trans-disciplinary work we undertake is relevant, addresses current challenges, and anticipates future ones. All of this is underpinned by an urgency for innovation, action and transformational change.

Through a trans-disciplinary approach, we are able to identify and address the big and connected issues that transcend national, regional and sectoral boundaries. Leveraging disciplinary excellence from our broad pool of talent, and ensuring that we have the right voices around the table, enables us to see the challenge from different perspectives, and to craft innovative solutions. By focusing on the big issues, not only are they the most relevant to society, they also drive systemic and transformational change, excite interest, and enable us to access substantive and sustainable sources of funding.

 Demonstrating impact is critical

As we progress on our journey, demonstrating tangible impact is critical to consolidating our positioning as a credible and transformational agent of society. We will be measured on our societal contribution, and the extent to which it is felt and experienced.

In isolation, indicators such as research outputs and productivity, the quality of the journals that we publish in, and the number of citations we receive are a means to an end, and not an end in themselves. They describe our impact within a closed academic system, and are weak surrogates for the impact we should be demonstrating at macro-societal levels, such as addressing poverty and inequality, and at micro-societal levels where we enhance the lives of people and the communities that they live in. 

Our education and research agendas and programmes should directly address societal challenges as captured in at least two frameworks: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and African Agenda 2063, The Africa We Want and of course the national development plans of each the countries that are part of the African Union.

Further work needs to be done in the area of measuring impact. I believe that a basket of qualitative and quantitative success indicators need to be identified across social, economic and environmental dimensions. These may be context specific, they should seek to reflect societal development and ecosystem renewal, and should include perspectives of partners, recipients and society at large.

 Concluding remarks

In conclusion, colleagues and friends, the quest to reposition African universities is both timely and necessary. It is needed for the development of our continent, for meaningful existence of its people, and for our very survival as institutions of higher learning. It is clearly a task that requires us to work together, and as individuals and a collective, we must demonstrate transformational leadership and a predisposition for action. I am optimistic that we will take up the challenge with assurance, and when we look back many years from now, we will confidently say that the RuForum annual general meeting was a seminal point in our journey towards repositioning African universities, and transforming our continent, i.e. achieving the strategic intentionality that transforms us from legacies of colonialism to institutions of and for a future African that has ridden itself of past and current challenges.

About the speaker: Professor Tawana Kupe is the University of Pretoria’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal. He previously taught at the Rhodes University and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He was trained at the University of Zimbabwe and University of Oslo in Norway. 

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