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Higher Education, Transformation and Lifelong Learning

Date Released: Thu, 17 October 2013 09:00 +0200

“Fifty percent of students entering higher education in South Africa will not complete university with a degree.” This alarming statistic was presented by Dr Saleem Badat, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, while he was speaking at the 10th annual Julius Nyerere Lecture on Lifelong Learning, held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on 14 October 2013.

“People must be encouraged to realise that knowledge matters,” said Dr Badat. Lifelong learning for human development, which builds a learning culture in every home, street, community, province and nation, is key to helping to address the living conditions of people. Developing lifelong capabilities of literacy, numeracy and critical engagement with everyday problems – including learning how to learn – are integral to learning throughout life.

As UWC has positioned itself as a leading proponent of lifelong learning, the University decided to institute a Lifelong Learning Lecture series in 2004.  UWC's Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Brian O'Connell, felt that it was fitting to name the lecture in honour of Julius Kambarage Nyerere, first President of Tanzania, one of the greatest African political leaders and most respected post-colonial thinkers.

As a Mwalimu (Swahili for “teacher”) himself, Nyerere was that rare type of intellectual who was open to new ideas and criticism, and yet displayed a profound independent-mindedness. He saw education as a means of bringing about human liberation and equality in society, and believed the main purpose of adult education was to inspire a desire for change. The lecture series honours these beliefs, and has drawn prominent speakers both nationally and internationally.

As Dr Badat explained, “Notwithstanding the contradictions and ambiguities and ultimately reversals of the socialist efforts of Tanzania under Nyerere, Mwalimu continues to be revered.

This is not surprising – alongside Fanon, Cabral and Lumumba he is one of Africa's great anti-imperialist revolutionaries, Psan-Africanists and revolutionary thinkers.”

Among African leaders, Dr Badat elaborated, Nyerere's thinking on education and his connection to human development and liberation is unsurpassed: for Nyerere, “To live is to learn; and to learn is to try to live better.”

Dr Badat's talk addressed the core purposes of higher education, and the roles that are associated with these purposes. Higher education, he maintained, has a role to play in amplifying a learning culture both within and outside of higher education institutions.

Dr Badat elaborated that “the first purpose of a university is to produce knowledge, so that we can advance understanding of our natural and social worlds and enrich our accumulated scientific and cultural heritage.” This includes reinvigorating knowledge – and challenging much of what masquerades as knowledge – and also sharing knowledge with others.  

The second purpose of universities is “to disseminate knowledge and cultivate inquiring and critical minds.” Students should also have some understanding of and experience in thinking systematically about moral and ethical problems. At the same time students and staff need capacity for crucial examination of themselves and their traditions.

“Let us be clear,” Dr Badat explained. “If a university is not good at research, and at teaching and learning. It cannot undertake real service to the communities. We must have something to offer first.”

He elaborated the purposes with a set of roles which include actively engaging with their wider contexts and societal conditions, in the interests of social justice. Higher education must engage in transformation, but what does this mean, he asked?

Transformation is about change, but as Dr Badat clarified, “not all change is transformation”.

The changing of demographics, numbers and proportions of students and staff, and pursuing and achieving 'race', gender and disability equity goals are important aspects of transformation.

So too are blacks 'catching up' with whites in terms of pass rates, graduation rates and participation rates in higher education, and historically black universities “catching up” with historically white universities with respect to facilities and the like.

But as Dr Badat states so clearly, “transformation cannot be reduced merely to such issues – much, much more is entailed.”

For one, transformation entails meaningful equity of access, opportunity and success for people of working class and poor rural social origins. Democratising access to knowledge is a major part of transformation for black and working class and rural poor people. It also means challenging the intellectual and daily legacies of colonisation, racialisation and patriarchy.

This includes creating institutional cultures that genuinely respect and appreciate difference and diversity – whether class, gender, national, linguistic, religious, sexual orientation, epistemological or methodological in nature.

To achieve transformation students, teachers, citizens must be open to, and must embrace, learning throughout life. This is not just including formal education, but informal, non-formal, self-directed learning, too.

As Dr Rosa Maria Torres said when she gave the 2005 Nyerere lecture, speaking about lifelong learning, “we cannot miss human development as a goal. This is not only about learning, this is not only about education, this is basically about human development. We have to make sure that whatever learning takes place, the living conditions of people should be further developed because this is the very essence of lifelong learning.”

Higher education has an important role to play in advocating, researching and creating opportunities for lifelong learning. But Dr Torres cautioned that, “Lifelong Learning is a catchy word, sexy, but making it happen is a highly complicated matter.. It is not only about expanding the supply of education throughout the life of people, it also has to do with comprehensiveness, it has to do with diversification, it has to do with articulation of various systems, and it has to do with transformation of the current educational culture.”

In closing, Dr Badat highlighted the tensions and contradictions which play out where higher education is accorded various and diverse roles. In the face of this, higher education could play contradictory roles: its contributions could be simultaneously radical and transformative and reformist and conservative.

For example, under certain circumstances higher education could play a vital role in disseminating anti-racist ideas, and help to erode racism, racialism and racial prejudice and build a non-racial culture. Yet, concomitantly, it could play little or no role in undermining patriarchy and sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. It could even contribute to prejudice and intolerance through its own institutional culture and practices.

One reason for this is that universities do not stand outside of society; they are subject to conflicts and contradictions of society and therefore they will tend to express the ideological struggles present in all societies.

The universities need to be solid and dynamic enough to stand the tensions and to be able to perform somewhat contradictory roles and functions.

“We must make sure our universities are healthy enough to maintain the role that society calls on us to play,” Dr Badat concluded. The 10th commemorative Nyerere’s lecture built on the inspirational lectures held since 2004.

Source: University of the Western Cape 

Source:University of the Western Cape