New-look universities

Universities worldwide are exploring new ways of functioning and interacting with the communities they serve.

This month the founding meeting of the International Association of New Generation Universities takes place in Ireland and a few South African universities will be attending the event.

New generation universities “do different things”. The different things span the main focus areas of teaching and learning, research and community service, but under a broader, integrated focus of serving society and more particularly their immediate communities.

New generation universities operate on a far broader span of the knowledge continuum than a traditional university. Their curricula would cross the traditional binary divide between universities and polytechnic or technology-oriented institutions. Sometimes the curricula would include knowledge regarded generally as belonging to the more vocational and technical orientation of further education and training.

The new generation university takes the inherent integrated nature of knowledge as its point of departure, rather than viewing knowledge as grouped into an incompatible or hierarchical categorisation.

New generation universities would thus offer a far greater set of learning programmes, covering a wider spectrum of qualifications, such as certificates, diplomas and degrees and, in some areas, do so from the initial entry level up to the PhD level. One of the challenges facing new generation universities is to develop learning pathways or articulation mechanisms between career-oriented certificate and diploma programmes and professional and other degree programmes.

This approach means that new generation universities offer both discipline-based and inter- and multidisciplinary-based learning programmes. It means they are positioned to respond easily to changes in the knowledge environment also, such as the emergence of new knowledge areas like business ethics.

In the field of research new generation universities would be far more centred on problem-solving or user-inspired research, which relates to challenges faced by their constituent communities. The research of new generation universities is usually characterised by know-ledge diffusion or technology transfer whereby the knowledge generated by researchers is infused into industry, business, government authorities or civil society.

These universities are characterised by engagement as the hallmark of their internal and external relations. In developing curricula they would engage with stakeholders, such as business, government and civil society, on the desired nature of the learning programme. They would include academics in such curricula teams from disciplines other than the major ones in which a particular learning programme might be situated. Service learning and forms of experiential learning would form an important component of their educational delivery models.

Typically, new generation universities would determine their strategic plan and their research agenda with strong and sustained input from external stakeholders. They are probably less threatened than traditional universities by the possibility that such forms of engagement might impinge on institutional autonomy and academic freedom, seeing these far more as relative concepts than as absolutes.

They are open to exploring relationships with external stakeholders, which bring these groups much closer into the business of the university. They are typically networked to many other knowledge-based institutions and are reflections of the networked society in which we live.

A new generation university cannot simply be managed as a traditional university is. Matrix management, flatter structures and short-term ad hoc teams, put together for a specific purpose and then disbanded, are prevalent in new generation universities.

Management itself, and not only the academic corps, interacts regularly with external stakeholders and involves them in evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the university’s operations. They tend to be strongly performance-oriented and focus on developing performance targets aligned with their strategic objectives.

A new generation university is incompatible with the notion of the university as an insular “ivory tower”—it is the opposite. It invites society into its institution on the basis of mutually beneficial partnerships.

Dr Rolf Stumpf is the outgoing vice-chancellor of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, which is working towards becoming a “new generation” university.

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