Emerging scholars to co-create the university of the future
Students and scholars have called for the transformation and re-imagining of the university space. One year after national protests rocked the country, violence, uncertainty and a breakdown in dialogue has become part of the narrative for “free, quality, decolonised education for the poor”. As our universities fluctuate between open and shut, becoming sites of trauma and conflict, what we know for certain is that higher education will never be the same again.
This transforming space needs university staff, students and communities, to grapple with the reality of the changing landscape and cultivate intellectual spaces that contribute positively to the development of society. It requires imaginative communities of open-minded individuals with an interest in the academy and in the future of the university to steer institutions through its current impasse.
According to an annual report looking at the 2013-2014 academic year, released by the Department of Higher Education and training, almost 953, 373 students were registered at 23 universities around the country. Over 5% of the student population was made up postgraduate students. This small community of the university students has a potential not fully recognised by the larger academic community.
Postgraduate students are mastering their career discipline, leading industry, undertaking research projects and developing new forms of knowledge. In producing this work, they are engaging with academic supervisors, industry trailblazers and undergraduate students, fostering a perspective unique to that of the academic majority.
In recognizing the silence of the postgraduate voices in the debate on the future of higher education, a community of postgrad students has started a network called the Emerging Scholars, with the aim to create a vibrant community guided by values of open-mindedness, supportiveness, knowledge production and responsibility to society.
In 2015, during the height of the student protests, communications scholars called for the formation of a transformative academic community and as a result the SACOMM (South African Communications Association) Emerging Scholars community was formed, in line with national and international movements towards similar communities.
This year, the Emerging Scholars met for the first time at the University of Free State. A total of 57 postgraduate scholars joined from 15 institutions including Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), North West University (NWU), Stellenbosch University (SU), University of Cape Town (UCT), University of Fort Hare (UFH), University of the Free State (UFS), University of Johannesburg (UJ), University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and more.
Discussions included transformation and the re-imagining of the university space, as well as alternative research paradigms. In an environment where violence has halted much needed dialogue, the Emerging Scholars seek to engage on issues facing higher education and society at large, whilst undertaking research into areas unexcavated, such as the black female body, forms of protest, #feesmustfall representations by the media and HIV/Aids to name a few.
As the call for ‘quality, free, decolonised education’ echoes throughout university campuses in South Africa, it is clear that higher education requires another shift – a shift towards affordable education, student-led initiatives, African-centred research and transformative communities which construct the future of the university as one which speaks to the needs of students and society through its intellectual endeavours.
As professionals who will lead industry and academia into the future, postgraduate students are well positioned to co-create the university of the future. The university that is more inclusive of its students, especially the black working class, and promotes humanising practices, African perspectives on research, and fiscal policy catering to all South Africans in sustainable ways.
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