Possible Futures, Now

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Tawana Kupe (Pretoria)

The sudden, silent coming of Covid-19 was the very antithesis of the ethos of the work of the university, which is always considered and public. 

Unsurprisingly then, university people have been shaken by the pandemic. They seem resigned on the imprint it has left on this fast-fading year, but worry about the impact that the virus will have on the decades that follow.

They know, however, that they are charged to respond with bold action because the virus has changed ways of thinking, of living, of working. So, adaptation and that all-too-often over-traded word, innovation, has been uppermost in the minds of higher education leaders across the world in 2020. But if universities are to thrive in a post-Covid world, they must value their traditions of openness and accountability as much as they pursue the urgency of change.

Drawing from both traditions, universities are trying understand how it was that science largely missed the signs of Covid’s coming, and so fulfil their obligation to secure the long-term future of humanity on this planet.

But they know, too, that the university must rise to the immediate challenges of global health, education and economic crises; job losses; poverty; and the overriding sense of uncertainty and insecurity. These all existed pre-Covid, of course, but the pandemic has aggravated each with knock-on effects.

The core responsibility of teaching and learning is continuing in universities, even though the very essence of pedagogy – the shared trust between teacher and learner – has been corroded by the imperative of social distancing. And notwithstanding – no, because of – the rise of national chauvinism across the globe, higher education is pursuing an unwaivering commitment to the internationalisation of knowledge.

If all this sounds daunting, it certainly is… but there is more.

Every university person knows that resources are scarce, and recognises that the loss of schooling for a day – let alone a year or two – will be felt at the tertiary level for a decade and more.  An annual truism in higher education runs that pupils who start school today, will be university students in a short dozen years!

So in delivering on their calling, universities will have to achieve greater economies of scale, with the promise of better results than ever before. Collaboration – at home and abroad – has certainly helped with this by opening up the possibilities of sharing lectures, online courses, and degree programmes.

Despite restrictions on travel, earlier work on internationalisation facilitated interaction with new partners in creative ways. One such is the Australia Africa Universities Network of which the University of Pretoria is a member and I serve as co-president. The network includes 10 Australian universities and 12 African universities, who collaborate on issues from education and public health to mining and food security.

Technology is key to the success of  these partnerships which increasingly cross campuses, countries and continents. Interestingly, they foreshadow ways in which today’s students, when they graduate, will conduct their professional lives. Our students know this, of course, but it is often difficult for them to see how this can be realised because, right now, their access to technology is uneven, and data is costly.

As in the past, universities know that a significant percentage of their labour must impact – not only the privileged few – but the common good. The question underlying this feature of university work must be: how does teaching and research contribute to a better world? Understanding this obligation does not undermine the imperative of fundamental research – the so-called ‘blue skies’ option. But the intellectual challenge it presents is this: applied knowledge must complement – not contradict – critical questioning.

To deliver on this, universities must come to recognise that far too much academic energy is lost through the organisation of knowledge into distinct disciplines. This is an incendiary point, to be sure – but don’t get me wrong. Disciplines are vital foundational spaces for teaching and research.

But the lesson of Covid is plain: global challenges are messy, complex, intersectional, and the evidence is clear – interdisciplinarity in both thought and action yields effective solutions. This requires intellectual dexterity, interdisciplinary understanding and, this must be said, moral imagination.

If these are the wider challenges that universities face, what of the local?

The tell-tale signs of South Africa’s deeply-divided past continue to course through its university system. Undoubtedly, however, social mobility has increased since apartheid ended – universities have played a crucial role in delivering this achievement. Presently, however, Covid restrictions limit access to campuses, and this is denying our undergraduates that once-in-a-life-time frisson: what it is ‘to be a student’. This undoubtedly presents a deep challenge to the ethos of the university as a place for the young to grow.  But returning to this experience will not be resolved without an effective (and cheap) test-and-trace system.

The association of this country’s universities (called, Universities South Africa), has boldly pointed out that “the pandemic has silver linings. It can serve as a springboard for re-thinking the future of higher education and strengthen the pact between universities, the state, business, society and communities”.

This will only succeed by pursuing sector-wide strategies, as opposed to fragmented, institutional-centred initiatives which have been encouraged by market-centred approaches to higher education policy. South Africa’s universities will need to gather their energies to look at how they can collectively stimulate funding to address escalating financial challenges – and use this to engage with National Treasury and other responsible government departments.

One possibility is to share services and programmes without universities losing their distinctiveness. So, for example, IT services could be pooled among institutions to control costs, access expertise, and speed the acquisition of advanced technologies in, for example, test-and-trace.

Such collaborative options were not thought possible in the ‘old’ normal which Covid ended.

As they chart the new futures, universities must be nimble; they must be responsible; but they have to be daring, too. In the wake of Covid, many have argued that the day of the university is done, but the pandemic suggests the contrary – its most important days lie ahead.


Professor Tawana Kupe is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He was previously the Vice Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. He graduated from the University of Zimbabwe and took a DPhil. in Media Studies from University of Oslo, Norway. He has published extensively within academy, and widely in the public sphere. Email: tawana.kupe@up.ac.za

Feature image: Paul Klee (1930) Burdened Children. Tate Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0


Wangenge-Ouma, G. & Kupe, T. (2020),  Uncertain Times: Re-imagining universities for new, sustainable futures‘. Universities South Africa, Pretoria.

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