Universities’ social contract can’t be limited by nation or even hemisphere

Equal collaboration demands investment from the Global North in key research infrastructures in the Global South, say ’Funmi Olonisakin and Jan Palmowski

December 3, 2023
Planet earth painted around a human eye, illustrating international vision
Source: iStock

At the biennial conference of the African Research Universities Alliance (Arua) at the University of Lagos last week, some 250 researchers, professional services staff and university leaders discussed the future of higher education in Africa.

In his keynote, Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London, set out the challenge: that, as institutions, we are often constrained by our own laws and regulations, but the challenges we face are global. Peter Maassen, professor of higher education at the University of Oslo, added in his own keynote that societal and technological changes were all around us, and they would change universities – not just in Africa

This set the framework for discussing how African universities should look to the future, given the striking imbalances in research (infrastructure) capacity between the Global North and the Global South. And we pondered the particular opportunities and pitfalls for Africa’s universities associated with new technologies in teaching and learning.

But for participants from the Global North, the debates raised a further question: when we discuss pedagogical innovation across the Global North, how often do we ever look to the Global South for inspiration? At the University of Lagos, for instance, we were privileged to witness the opening of new co-creative spaces in the library. We visited the “MAD (Make A Difference) House” – a groundbreaking incubation facility for artists and creative entrepreneurs hosted by the university. And we were inspired by the university’s astonishing art collection, on display throughout the conference. The lesson is simple: it is high time we made our discussions about the future of the university what they should be – genuinely global.

The conference focused less on what research and education would be needed by Africa’s university of the future and more on what its research must be for. How could African higher education institutions best support societal transformation?

Nigeria epitomises the continent’s demographic opportunities and challenges. Its population has trebled to 220 million over the past 40 years and is set to increase further, to 377 million, by 2050. Already, 70 per cent of the population are under 30. Such demographic revolutions vastly complicate local responses to global and technological transformations, but they also increase the urgency of reimagining the university’s relationship to society.

Add to demographics the political, economic, scientific and environmental difficulties we face and it becomes apparent that the need for universities has never been greater. But we cannot just assert our importance – we also need to accept the responsibilities that come with our embeddedness in societal transformation. The Arua conference challenged us to rethink and rearticulate the societal contract of universities, in Africa and beyond.

The first question is how we serve society as institutions that are governed and framed by the state – and, more specifically, how we sustain, against the growing expectations of our governments and regulators, our critical distance and speak truth to power. Universities must be spaces that allow social actors to critically reflect on the future they want. Their leaders should feel duty bound to protect the ability of staff and students to contribute freely and meaningfully to making society more successful – including, when necessary, challenging the visions of political and economic elites.

A second urgent question is how we reflect society in our communities of staff and students. How do we ensure not just equality, but also equity in who we are and what we do? To be sure, we will always be constrained in our capacity to act by external forces – governments, school systems, funding and so on. But this reinforces our mission to be powerful agents of systemic change beyond our institutions, reaching deep into society.

Third, how does the changing nature of society challenge what we do? Given the demographic and economic transformations, should we persist in offering primarily full degrees? Or should we place equal emphasis on transferrable skills courses at a range of levels (including foundation) so that we benefit a much wider section of the population? Successful societies require the development of a capable pipeline of educated and skilled youth, with a focus on the needs of each context.

Finally, universities are, by definition, universal. Our contract with society cannot be limited to one country or even one hemisphere. We must rediscover our commitment to knowledge as a global public good by developing new forms of collaboration with university and non-university actors wherever we can make a distinctive contribution, with a firm commitment to equity at the heart of that relationship.

This entails a commitment by the Global North to invest in key research infrastructures (such as stable wi-fi connectivity, labs and other facilities) in the Global South, without which such collaboration, which we so desperately need for our collective survival, can never be equal.

The future of higher education in Africa, then, raises an acute issue for us all. Universities are not nestled at the top of the hill, looking downwards. They are the heartbeat of societies – local and global. And they need to act accordingly.

’Funmi Olonisakin is vice-president, international, engagement and service, King’s College London. Jan Palmowski leads on Africa-Europe research collaboration for the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

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Reader's comments (1)

The author fails to indiate wher ethis "investment" in "southern" infrastructure is to come from. Is nt as if the majority of Univrsities in the "north" are awash with spare money. Each week brings new of yet further cut-backs in departments in the UK due to drop in student demand. Neither party in the UK has flagged any intention to inject cash into UK HE, and even if they did, the purpose of that cash would be to support aspects of the UK HE sector. Other countries regarless of location have their own challenges. Where there are successfu examples of shared infrastructure theses are not necessarily connected wit the University system. Thinkings that come to mind include CERN, the Square-Kilometer Array. Have university as parters but are not driven by or financed by the university systems of collaborating countries. Maybe the solutions to problems that the authors mention require some other kind of collaborative and funding arrangement with universities from different regions contributing resources according to their ability, self interest and national remit.