Transdisciplinary partnerships can harness African universities’ power

Local and international collaboration will allow institutions to tackle the challenges of sustainable development, says Tawana Kupe

March 5, 2021
The Mapungubwe Rhino
Source: University of Pretoria

The golden rhino displayed in the University of Pretoria’s Javett-UP Art Centre takes us back to the period from 900 to 1300AD. The people from this legendary civilisation, known as the Mapungubwe Kingdom, faced many disruptions and crises, including what is believed to have been a climate-associated decimation of natural resources. Yet still they prospered. Still they were able to acquire the skills and resources required to make such an exquisite object.

But their case is not unique. Throughout time, civilisations the world over have faced all sorts of disruptions, crises and diseases. What is critical is how we respond to them. Do they drive us to extinction, or do we find a way forward?

In 2021, humanity is confronted by climate change, global poverty, food insecurity, declining biodiversity and all the other challenges addressed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Covid-19 and the resulting global recession have only underlined and exacerbated these crises.

The pandemic is symptomatic of deep fault lines in the way we live on our planet. It requires us to holistically reimagine and reposition universities’ role in broader society. We need to be at the forefront of formulating strategies that can be collaboratively implemented to achieve social equality and environmental sustainability.

The emergence of transdisciplinary and international research partnerships approaches offers a unique opportunity to this. After all, the problems the world is facing do not come neatly packaged in disciplinary silos or national boundaries. That is why 44 per cent of the research we conduct at the University of Pretoria is done with international collaborators – often from different disciplines.

To maximise the impact of our research, we have identified a number of institutional research themes aligned with international partnerships and areas of research strength, including food nutrition and well-being; genomics research, zoonotic diseases, human rights and diversity; and ecosystem services and livelihoods.

Regarding Covid-19, we have been working at multiple levels, from research on how the virus infects people and mutates, to participating in international clinical trials. We are currently researching genome profiles in the hope of being able to identify who in the population is at higher risk of contracting killer viruses and other diseases. At the same time, we are researching how people behave during a pandemic because if we don’t understand this, we cannot optimally manage the spread.

We are increasingly opting for multilateral partnerships, as opposed to the traditional bilateral approach. For instance, we have formulated an African-Global University Project to choose 20 to 30 universities (10 to 15 African and 10 to 15 global institutions) that will become strategic institutional partners and collaborators. One of the desired outcomes will be to develop young intellectual leaders with a global outlook.

In 2018 and 2019, we also launched four key transdisciplinary innovation platforms for intra- and cross-institutional collaborations across the region and the world. The Javett-UP Art Centre – home of the golden rhino – is one of them. It is all about exploring what makes us human: what inspires us to think, feel, act, innovate and advance.

Another is the “Future Africa Campus”, a transdisciplinary research hub that aims to become a pan-African space for addressing continental and global problems. A third is Engineering 4.0, a hub for smart cities and transport for economic development. And a fourth is Innovation Africa @ UP, which focuses on smart, sustainable agriculture.

Like the rest of the world, we eagerly await a time when we can all safely return to campus. After all, education is a social activity. Moreover, the pandemic has exacerbated already glaring inequalities in education as those students – and institutions – that lack digital infrastructure and skills have fallen further behind while teaching has been taking place online.

It is imperative to address this gap. But the digitisation of institutions will require considerable resources that many currently lack. It will require local and international partnerships with well-resourced higher education institutions, governments and business.

In Africa, investments in higher education yield the highest returns in the world: up to 21 per cent. Higher education and knowledge creation, both directly and indirectly, drive innovation, which is critical for economic growth.

Moreover, all 10 of the countries with the youngest populations are in Africa, with approximately 65 per cent of the continent’s citizens being below the age of 35. From this perspective, access to relevant and high-quality higher education is a fundamental building block to creating inclusive economies and sustainable societies.

Tawana Kupe is vice-chancellor of the University of Pretoria, which is hosting Times Higher Education’s Southern Africa Impact Forum from 9-10 March. To register, click here.

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