In a rapidly changing, uncertain and complex world, the role that universities are playing as the engines of social mobility, as drivers of the economy and as generators of new ideas, is now more critical than ever. Because of the universal nature of knowledge, universities are global in scope — spaces that encourage new ideas, controversy, inquiry, and argument, and challenge orthodox views.
But they are also deeply entrenched in their local environment, influenced by socioeconomic and political dynamics. There is an expectation that universities should exhibit great levels of responsiveness and public accountability, and foster higher levels of trust in higher education, between higher education and the government, and higher education and the public. The challenge for both higher education and the government is to allow institutional autonomy without oppressive accountability.
Over the past few years, the purpose of universities has been challenged in relation to their role in society, their advocacy for speaking truth to power, their continuous striving to be great without being elitist, and their ability to function in an age of populism. The Trump administration and, more recently, Brexit have demonstrated that there is a decline in the respect for evidence and advice from subject-specific experts.
It seems (as in the case of the Trump administration) as if empirical reality does not matter, nor does empirical reasoning form the basis of public policy — a political space that is becoming increasingly anti-intellectual. Emotion and personal belief have been shown to carry more weight than objective facts and evidence in terms of influencing public opinion. Fake news and the “alternative truth” have also challenged the fundamental principles of a university — academic freedom and the generation of new knowledge in the pursuit of truth.
Part of the solution
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown deep fault lines in our society — stark poverty and inequality — that universities should engage with (and they do); they cannot eliminate these problems on their own, but can be part of the solution.
South Africa is the most unequal society in the world. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African economy was already in deep trouble, with sovereign downgrades by all the rating agencies and with an unemployment rate close to 30%.
The national lockdown, in an attempt to flatten the infection curve and hence manage the response of the national health system to Covid-19 cases, has added to the pressure on the economy. It is envisaged that a large number of people (estimated between three and seven million South Africans) will lose their jobs after the national lockdown, adding to poverty and an already high unemployment rate.
Even during the lockdown period, there are many South Africans living in crowded spaces, who find it difficult to practise social distancing, may not have running water and proper sanitation, and do not have regular access to food.
As schools and the post-school education and training sectors move online with their learning, it further shows how digitally unequal our society really is. Access to connectivity, data and an appropriate digital device is a challenge, and electricity is not evenly distributed or in our society.
These institutions, within the environment of digital inequality, are ensuring that digital equity is maintained as far as possible. Many churches, business leaders, and certain politicians have called for a new social compact between business, labour, and government to address the state of the economy — any such action, however, must be supplemented by concrete measures for social reform.
But perhaps this pandemic has also created an opportunity for science and evidence to regain credibility in informing government decisions and public trust, and for universities to demonstrate respect for evidence. During the initial stages of Covid-19 in South Africa, in early March, the epidemiologists and virologists showed through confirmed data from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) that South Africa was in the early phase of the infection curve.
This was interpreted to be the relatively low-risk phase of the curve and to be the right time to apply the principle of physical distancing. This data allowed certain organisations (such as universities) to proactively suspend part of their activities so as to minimise the number of people in their operational environment, well before the national lockdown was instituted on March 26 — a decision based on science.
The importance of science
Through data and proper analyses, the NICD, other scientific bodies and the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 provided evidence-based information to the government and the public, from which meaningful decisions could be taken. The South African government has made it clear that decisions about Covid-19 will be made based on science — a stance to be applauded. The risk-adjusted approach of “opening up” the economy through easing the lockdown measures, while constantly monitoring the infection curve, is an excellent example of risk management.
Universities, science laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies around the globe are hard at work to develop an effective vaccine for Covid-19, which is another opportunity to demonstrate how science can assist in protecting people from this terrible virus. Universities are making progress in manufacturing personal protective equipment, developing new technologies for non-intensive care unit provision of oxygen to Covid-19 patients, finding methods of testing for the virus to reduce turnaround times, and various other scientific advances.
This platform is giving universities a renewed impetus to use science and scientific developments to advance solutions for other societal issues such as climate change, poverty and inequality, public health and social justice — and more immediately — assisting in to rebuild a strong South African economy.
This is an opportunity for the public and politicians to regain trust in universities, but it is also an opportunity for universities to showcase their public intellectuals so that the value of science and evidence-based output is part of policy debates and informed decision-making. However, in doing so, universities must strengthen their relationship with society at large, be inquiry-driven and, at the same time, continue to be involved in learning and co-creating.