/ 7 February 2020

Transform campuses, transform society

(John McCann/M&G)


The role of the university campus can be more than a place and structure in which higher education is delivered, as well as provide additional services and extracurricular activities.

After the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall campaigns, facilitation of access to and the promotion of diverse cultures and languages, and the transformation of curriculums have been prioritised under the all-embracing heading of “decolonisation of the university”.

But little emphasis has been put on the transformation of university campuses themselves as an embodiment of colonialism and the exclusionary politics thereof. In fact, the university campus can be used as an analogy for the role that higher education can play in facilitating decolonisation and social transformation. Discussions on the decolonisation of the university are incomplete until they also encompass critical and creative thinking about the places and spaces in which universities work and lives are lived and fulfilled.

Education is linked to the metaphor of change and the transference of knowledge, so is the university itself and, no less so, campus. Universities can be seen as transit spaces that function as nodes in which people and even society are transformed. Equally, universities mirror, and take on the form of, their surroundings and the societies they are part of. Former University of the Free State vice-chancellor, Jonathan Jansen, when dealing with racism on campus, found that sentiments on campus were mere mirror images of racist attitudes in the communities surrounding the university, as reflected through newspaper editorials and letters to the editors in local newspapers.

This becomes ever more important in the postcolonial context of South African universities, whereas previously, the place and space of the university campus made statements of belonging and exclusion in equal measures. Instead, the strategic direction of South African university campuses must be to make statements about a new set of ideologies and values, and serve as a space for the re-appropriation of cultural production and reproduction.

Thus, what makes universities transit spaces is that the coincidence or meetings that they give rise to frame cultural trajectories. The university serves as a place where people of different generations and genealogies meet and, through the meeting of people, the university also connects multiple epistemic schema, disciplines, knowledges, ideas and systems of thought.

The key point here is that the “transit” metaphor captures the transformation ideal of a university that changes society through its educational, research and other endeavours. It coheres with the idea of a university that breaks the yoke of colonialism and moves to replace colonial orders with new ones that are relevant to the needs of the society in which it is founded.

The transit metaphor suggests that the ideal of the university, as a place of advancement through teaching and research, is best met when the university itself is informed by the environments on which it is based. South African university campuses, like their counterparts around the world, are all products and embodiments of the political and social agendas of their time.

The post-war era brought the construction of large numbers of universities characterised by bold modernist architecture and rigid layouts planned to host much smaller student populations, which are ill-suited for today’s large surge in student numbers and the changing demands of 21st-century education, ideally characterised by the flexibility of evolving technological developments, changing teaching methods and a greater need for interactions between students and staff and the surrounding communities.

There is an imperative to reimagine and reconfigure the physical place and space of campus to not only accommodate larger student numbers, but to create a campus that is centred on a holistic and equal learning experience that provides for formal and alternative teaching and learning modalities, and that creates a sense of sociocultural belonging for all students.

To create a learning environment that is conducive to a “future-fit” university, and to create a learning space that talks to and considers a South African and African cultural, as well as a socioeconomic context, it is important to rethink, reconstruct and re-practice campuses in ways that mediate transformation. Imagining campuses as transit points allows us to think about how spaces can be reconfigured to become virtual as well as literal transit halls in which social transformation is enabled. Thus, campuses as transit points can open up to processes that are conducive to individuals, societies, nations and the world being reimagined, reconfigured, transformed and decolonised.

There are three main areas in which campuses can be reconfigured as transit spaces.

First, campuses can work as transit points that link people to multiple and varied possibilities for socio-cultural belonging. Research shows that the South African university mergers have successfully managed to construct a professional academic and student identity that is moving away from an apartheid higher education system in which academic identities were formed by an allegiance to an institution shaped by and premised on the apartheid ideology of belonging and exclusion. Instead, a new allegiance and identity is formed, shaped by the post-merger institution independent of previous language and cultural affiliations. Thus, a conscious restructuring and reimagining of the place of the university and those who inhabit it can create new ways for people to reimagine their identities.

Second, universities can decolonise by enabling and providing extended educational, professional and social services. With campuses essentially built to host much smaller student numbers, many institutions are hard-pressed to reconfigure, rebuild and construct new lecture venues, student accommodation and recreational spaces. With dwindling funding, new and innovative solutions to space constraints are much needed. Here universities need to harness opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution and new options for how services can be delivered without compromising the social aspects of the campus experience.

Third, campuses can decolonise by recreating and facilitating decolonised relationships between the university and surrounding communities and broader socio-economic policies and imperatives nationally, regionally and globally. Transformation and decolonisation projects will have to take stakeholder relationships seriously and make them key to the transformation agenda of the university.

This means giving all stakeholders real and tangible stakes in the facilities and services of the campus. Thus, university campuses must be configured in such a way that, unlike, for example American university campuses, structured as a “place apart” and as microcosms of cities, they instead become a place that is part of the surrounding community.

As transit spaces, universities can act as vital nodes for the transitions South Africa envisions to advance decolonisation. University spaces can also work as networks in which possibilities are produced that enable society to develop innovations and capabilities with which to cope and even lead in a fast changing world.

To do so, it is necessary to remove structural, material and other barriers that limit the extent to which the university can function as a transit space. Thus, architects, planners, university leaders, academics and students, as well as other stakeholders, need to be challenged to fundamentally rethink the campus and the roles it fulfils.

Ultimately, how universities are constituted and given meaning say a great deal about how decolonisation of higher education and the societies they form part of will transpire.

Colin Chasi is in the department of communication studies and is head of the unit for institutional change and social justice at the University of the Free State. Ylva Rodny-Gumede is in the school of communication and is the head of the division for internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg