/ 9 September 2022

‘Change the knowledge economy into a knowledge democracy’

Start Of Lectures Uni Hannover
Teaching students critical literacy, greater collaboration among institutions and datafication are crucial. (Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Although the prospect of a radical transformation of higher education remains dim under neoliberalism, there is much that could be done to help universities fulfil their public-good mandate more effectively, according to Laura Czerniewicz, former director of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town.

However, university staff will need to shed their parochial attitudes towards knowledge creation, teaching and collaboration if they are to produce significant improvements within the system.

“A transformative approach to higher education would be to change the knowledge economy into a knowledge democracy, which would entail completely reorganising expenditure, resources, governance and the system of rewards,” Czerniewicz says.

“Such transformation has not, and may be unlikely to take place, but there is still a lot that can be done.”

Accordingly, Czerniewicz proposes a number of priorities:

• Promoting critical literacy among students as the appropriate response to a “complex and polarised” world;

• Greater collaboration within and among universities so that they can implement their social-good agenda more effectively; and

• The widespread adoption of new performance standards in place of international university rankings.

She further advises that universities should accelerate their efforts to address the digitalisation of education, an area in which they are quite vulnerable at present.

Czerniewicz proposes action in response to a neoliberal ethos she sees as becoming increasingly influential at universities.

“I am quite disturbed by the extent of the privatisation of higher education and the way that neo-liberal practices have penetrated the language of the institutions,” she says.

“Although universities should be efficient and sensible, they are not businesses and they do not report to shareholders. Rather, their mission is to promote social good and if they are reporting to anyone, it should be the public.”

The spectre of neoliberalism is also evident in what Czerniewicz describes as “a quite parochial view of what constitutes graduate employability and how this may be achieved” which, in turn, leads to the adoption of “a narrow perspective towards knowledge creation” and “an instrumentalist, technicist approach to knowledge”.

She adds: “Universities whose sole focus is employability in this sense may move to close humanities, social science and local languages departments, although such closures actually represent a false economy.” 

She advocates the promotion of critical thinking at universities instead of a continued emphasis on the acquisition of specialist skills.

“The pressure to equip students with the hard skills required to acquire paid work in an increasingly tough casualised gig economy is great and can numb educators to the need for critical thinking,” she notes. “But universities are obligated to help those lucky enough to become students who think critically.”

Czerniewicz describes critical thinking as a crucial capability. “Although graduates need to be prepared for the world by being taught particular practical and professional skills, such skills alone are insufficient,” she says.

“By contrast, an induction into critical thinking can equip students to manage the complexity facing them more effectively, asking difficult questions, recognising fake news, as well the value of new sources of information, looking past the way that everything is polarised and interrogating authority.

“The aim should be to produce people who are employable and employment-creating and who can make a significant contribution to society.”

In an effort to foster such graduates, Czerniewicz advises, a large-scale programme to develop academics as educators should be implemented, given that many are ill-equipped to foster critical literacy, including in relation to digital skills: “There is a pressing need for massive professional development of teachers and of academics as educators.”

Accordingly, she recommends that academics should be required continually to update their knowledge at particular points in their career in order to continue practising. “Continuous training should enable them, not only to keep pace with the latest developments in their discipline or field but also to gain an understanding of emerging critical literacies that they may be expected to inculcate in their students.”

She stresses the importance of such educator training across disciplines and faculties. “The scholarship of teaching and learning has shown that critical literacy skills cannot be taught separately — although many academics would prefer such an approach,” she says. “They have to be integrated into the curriculum.”

Turning from teaching to the issue of transforming governance, Czerniewicz advises that universities need to shift their institutional cultures, including addressing digitalisation in education, as well as more broadly in society and the economy.

“The digital economy is here to stay despite the drawbacks and the risks of engagement that it poses,” she says. “It is worse to be excluded from this economy, rather than to participate in it, albeit in a critical fashion.

“In this respect, it is not as if universities with barriers to access are choosing to be off the grid like hippies just wanting to live in the wild.”

Czerniewicz proposes taking a number of steps to promote greater equity of access across higher education: “The drive should be to foster inclusive systems and networks.”

She describes how the pivot to online education which accelerated under Covid-19 revealed a fundamental inequality among universities in their capacity to provide virtual teaching and learning, as well as hitherto unforeseen challenges in ensuring full access.

“It has shown that what was previously considered the absolute minimum of data that should be made widely available is way behind what is required to enable comprehensive access, such as [through the establishment of virtual classrooms] through synchronous streaming,” she says.

“The challenge is not so much the provision of devices … in fact, more people have cellphones than they have toilets. The issue is connectivity and the differing costs of data, which can vary globally by as much as 30,000:1.”

Czerniewicz argues that the establishment of basic infrastructure for connectivity should be a state responsibility, just as the supply of water and electricity is.

She also expresses concern about the issue of the datafication and digitalisation of higher education, including in relation to the administrative, procurement and legal capacities required to manage a university.

“Higher education has become a huge market for private vendors offering the new technologies and related services — all of which have created new challenges for university administrators who are negotiating new terms of engagement; signing new kinds of contracts; and procuring new kinds of tools, without necessarily having the time or capacity to grapple with the full implications of what they are undertaking.”

Czerniewicz argues that universities may be able to leverage economies of scale and the power of collective bargaining through the establishment of centralised systems and shared infrastructure.

In support of her case, she cites the benefits produced when university libraries came together to negotiate with academic publishers, as well as those generated by the Tertiary Education and Research Network of South Africa, or TENET, which provides bandwidth to South Africa’s public universities.

There would need to be greater collaboration, not only among universities but also within them “among academic … and non-academic staff, who remain worlds apart”.

Czerniewicz stresses that the benefits of inter- and intra-university collaboration are not only limited to the kinds of administrative platforms that may be chosen or forged.

“A drive to promote publishing on local platforms would produce significant benefits,” she says.

At the same time, she is keenly aware of the socio-economic forces aligned against such radical change.

She notes the enduring capacity of the private sector to commodify campaigns originally conceived in support of the public good. “It is important to ensure your agendas are not appropriated, as the concept and practice of open-access publishing has been by big commercial publishers.”

Czerniewicz advises that one effective way of fostering change among higher education institutions in support of their public-service mandate would be to produce a new set of performance standards in place of the present international system of university rankings.

“[The current] rankings may be deployed to enable certain universities to fund raise but, other than that, they establish a zero-sum game, creating unhelpful competition rather than collaboration among the institutions,” she says.

This is an edited version of an article first published by University World News and is based on an interview conducted by Krish Chetty for ‘The Imprint of Education’ project, which is being implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. 

This project, which includes a series of critical engagements with experienced scholars and thought leaders on their reimaginings of higher education in Africa, investigates current and future challenges facing the sector, including best practices and innovations. Mark Paterson and Thierry M Luescher edited the transcript for focus and length.

Mark Paterson is a communications and policy consultant, writer and editor. Thierry M Luescher is a South African-Swiss author and researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council and an affiliated professor at the University of the Free State.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

Mark Paterson is a communications and policy consultant, writer and editor. 

Thierry M Luescher is a South African-Swiss author and researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council and an affiliated professor at the University of the Free State.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.