Transformation in South Africa generally, and higher education in particular, has progressed at a painfully slow pace. To address this, Nelson Mandela University has, for the last decade, been hard at work on deepening transformation at the institution through various initiatives, as well as contributing to national conversation.
This work provided impetus for the establishment of the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET), which was launched on 24 July, to which transformation and social justice specialist Professor André Keet was appointed to the Chair in 2017.
CriSHET is a strategic post introduced to drive the Transformation agenda of the University by grounding it in critical studies and framing it within the concept of an African-purposed curriculum in view of the current decolonisation debates. This includes being a strategic resource to various key stakeholders, internally and externally, and to support the leadership team, positioning Nelson Mandela University within the higher education sector for strategic impact.
Prof Keet is a leading figure in studying, doing and guiding transformation within Higher Education and brings to the CriSHET Chair a wealth of experience.
“Having collaborated in the Mandela University space for the past five years as an associate, visiting academic and intellectual friend, I found the conditions here for building the scholarly base of transformation work to be the most fertile of any of the universities I have encountered,” says Prof Keet.
“People here have been working very hard over the past 10 years at deep transformation in the university space; and the idea and commitment to a transformative university is most pronounced.”
Mandela University put forward the Chair as a key response to higher education transformation and decolonisation, and, at the same time, to provide the Chair with the flexibility to do its work as a key implementing agent.
“This requires a disciplinary base from which we can study universities as social institutions and how they can meaningfully transform, based on scholarly research and associated programmes,” says Prof Keet.
Launching the CriSHET Chair on Tuesday (24 July), Vice-Chancellor Prof Sibongile Muthwa said the University’s vision was to “actively engage with the prevailing challenges of structurally-anchored inequalities within and outside of the academy, to purposefully generate a just institutional culture in which all stakeholders can contribute to the renewal and revival of the curriculum, the academy and the community”.
“In my inaugural address as the Vice-Chancellor… I emphasised the need for the University to be transformative – to place a sharper focus on praxes that tackle issues of social justice and poverty alleviation locally, continently and globally,” she said.
“True higher education transformation requires that we look not only at matters of redress, democratisation, development and the quality of the university, but also to zoom in on themes of institutional culture, curriculum and research, diversity, social cohesion and social inclusion, as well as community engagement.
“Although there have been some institutional shifts in transformative and inclusionary academic practices, we are yet to generate an institution-wide, deep-penetrating and paradigm-shifting ensemble of academic and administrative practices that fully and profoundly respond to our own social justice obligations and that of our students and communities.
“Transformation work requires transformative scholarship and as such CriSHET is building a particular scholarly base for transformation practitioners and staff and students in general to contribute to a reservoir of intellectual and pragmatic resources from which we all can learn and draw.”
As Chairperson of the Transformation Oversight Committee (TOC) for universities in South Africa, and a member of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), Prof Keet has an institutional and national view on higher education.
“The cultural alienation and misrecognition felt by students suggests that, collaboratively, we need to put major shifts on the table via knowledge and pedagogical transformation, so that we can respond in a deep, systemised way to the transformation challenges in the sector,” he says.
“The experiences gained and work done in these capacities gel very well with my position as Chair; and as such I am acutely aware of the really good work on transformation within our sector, from within universities themselves, their staff and students, and structures such as Universities South Africa (USAf), the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the Council on Higher Education (CHE), though, of course, much work still needs to be done.
“If we want to change our universities, we need to do it through knowledge, pedagogy and programmatic work. In addition, equity should function as both a mechanism and outcome of transformation. Our work is focusing on developing transformation capability, capacity, functionality and competencies within the system, whilst advancing the research and postgraduate agenda of the Chair.”
Prof Keet has been working in collaboration with numerous associates from around the world as well as with postgraduate students whose work is not simply focused on conventionally understood research outputs, but contribute to the growth of the Chair and its programmes within the university space.
His research and postgraduate supervision focus on four areas: critical studies in higher education transformation; social justice, social cohesion and reconciliation; human rights, democracy and citizenship education; and public participation, critical citizenship and democracy development.
On Monday (23 July), Prof Keet delivered his professorial inaugural lecture, titled The Plastic University – Knowledge, Disciplines and Decolonial ‘Circulations’, where he critiqued the university system. The inaugural lecture will be available on the University website in due course.
On Wednesday (25 July), CriSHET launched the book Critical Human Rights, Citizenship and Democracy Education, which is edited by Prof Keet and associate professor Michalinos Zembylas. The book presents a ground-braking collection of research that views human rights, democracy and citizenship education as a critical project. Written by an international line-up of contributors, including academics from South Africa, Canada, Ireland, Cuprus, Sweden, the UK and the US, the book provides a cross-section of theoretical work as well as case studies on the challenges and possibilities of bringing together the notions of human rights, democracy and citizenship education.
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