/ 30 March 2021

Universities should transform their methodology

'Who will the country blame when the tens of billions pumped into ‘free higher education’ don’t yield the expected returns?' Seán Mfundza Muller writes.
By using a more transformative approach, research in communities can contribute to socioeconomic upliftment (John McCann/M&G)


The Covid-19 pandemic has further turned the spotlight on the enduring issue of global inequality, particularly in a country like South Africa, where prevalence of this problem is high. Over the years, universities in the country have risen to the challenge of research productivity, and there are now more publications than ever before on impactful research output that seeks to contribute towards solving societal problems.  

Although this research work finds a translational approach to making a contribution, it is our contention that the approach needs a different thought paradigm, given this inherently structural inequality. We suggest that the methodology needs to be transformative in order to reflect the prevailing problems in the country and that society must be engaged upfront towards what is required for socioeconomic upliftment.  

In 2009, we initiated the expansion of our Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) as a global programme. The largest technical society for electrical engineering globally, the IEEE, supported this expansion. EPICS-in-IEEE involved the university students and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were tasked with getting the communities on board. 

As the pilot project took off, it became clear that interest in engineering remained at variation in other parts of the world, albeit for different reasons. For example, in South Africa historically disadvantaged communities had lost hope and confidence in the upliftment brought about by post-secondary education and training (PSET). In several cases, the authors and university students experienced first hand the situation created by poverty. At the Emasithandane Children’s Home, in Nyanga, for instance, the student-led installation of a solar geyser continues to make a difference to this day as sponsors came on board.

This indicated that the programme could be more than simply a professional development endeavour.  Engineers are uniquely equipped to develop solutions to today’s challenges, which ultimately allows them to change communities. EPICS facilitates that change now and for future generations by creating a world where engineering education is intimately connected to community service. 

Using the transformative methodology, the quest is to engage communities upfront and understand their challenges through a transdisciplinary lens. For example, a solar geyser provision could bring about a misunderstanding within the hierarchy of the local community. So, a team would need to include individuals from the social sciences, humanities and, of course, engineering. 

It is worth elaborating the role of multiple stakeholders. University students, often with their academic mentors, would approach one or more NGOs. NGOs have embedded community experience and would provide the initial scenario. A transdisciplinary team would engage with the scenario and determine interdependencies. With this understanding, the team, together with the NGO, would engage with the community. Pre-university learners could also contribute to the discussion. The idea is to “go together” with the community (rather than “for” or “to” the community) and develop the problem-to-solution mapping.  

In this case, the resulting impact is societal, and the publication avenue is likely to be in a multidisciplinary journal or in any one of the disciplines where new knowledge finds projection. 

Upfront to the approach was how, beyond project resolution, ongoing maintenance and upkeep would be supported. The latter often meant training the NGO and/or the community. The solution and ownership thereof had to be sustainable. 

At times, the pre-university learners contributed in unique ways. In one dialogue, when we were dealing with algae, electrical engineering students wanted to develop complex sensors to detect algae and other instruments to remove it. But in the same group, one secondary school learner (not having had the “benefit” of “advanced” university education) asked: “Why do we not use algae-eating fish?” A simple, sustainable, or “green” solution. 

There were at times situations when the solution was in fact already present. But because of social factors, particularly in disadvantaged communities, people did not have the hope or desire to explore a solution. The external impetus of the student party brought renewed hope. 

We do not propose that disciplinary research should be replaced by transdisciplinary work. The authors see the approach of transdisciplinary research as one that brings about augmentation or is complementary In some cases, it may alter the approach in how disciplinary research is pursued. Because this adds a lateral dimension to solving societal problems, where cost and sustainability are also factors, emanate solutions are innovative. 

Particularly as several universities are speaking to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the need for transformative and transdisciplinary methodology becomes more necessary than ever before. There is a real danger that if this 4IR arena is approached otherwise, inequality will expand.  

We advocate the role of university education in attaining sustainable development goals. Communities are an important avenue for such a pursuit, but the approach must be made with a transdisciplinary grouping; this ensures that research ethics is embedded upfront in the research methodology. Nevertheless, beyond all this, the civic role of a university is realised.