Wits University. Picture: WITS
Wits University. Picture: WITS

In the Business Beyond Covid series, CEOs and other business leaders and experts in their sectors look to the future after Covid-19. What effect has the pandemic and resulting lockdown had on their industries and the SA economy as a whole? Which parts will bounce back first and which will never be the same again? Most importantly, they try to answer the question: where to from here?

Humanity’s greatest economic, social and technological leaps have their roots in its darkest hours. Or, as economist Milton Friedman put it: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

But Friedman seems not to have recognised that the “picking up of the ideas” has to be an active process. It requires leadership and political will. The crisis enables the impetus for change, the leadership is the agency that uses the ideas to inform the reconstruction of the economy and society, and the university serves as the institutional reservoir where the ideas get initially formed and subsequently nurtured.

How will our crisis enable this process in the coming years? Covid-19, the lockdown and its after-effects will have a lasting and devastating impact on our world. But might it also provide the impetus for a new order — one that is more equitable and sustainable across the globe? And, as important generators of ideas, how might universities help shape such an outcome?

We focus here on three aspects of universities’ roles in shaping our future — teaching, international collaborative research and providing space for reshaping a more equitable world. That Covid-19 will have a transformative impact on the way learning happens within the universities seems indisputable. The most dramatic evidence of this is the shift to online learning. This has been under way for years now but was dramatically accelerated under Covid-19.

Almost all of our leading universities internationally have rapidly shifted to emergency remote online learning. The teaching programmes were not pedagogically constructed for online learning, but were quickly restructured and reorganised. We should expect this development to proceed at pace as new technologies for teaching become embedded. Does this, however, mark the end of the bricks and mortar university?

We don’t believe so, because learning in universities involves a lot more than simple instruction. Students learn as much outside the classroom as they do within. Universities enable the development of soft skills, consolidation of an intelligentsia, and the promotion of a cohesive citizenry.

Of course, none of this is going to happen simply as it did before. Instead we are likely to move to a form of blended learning, where part of it will happen online, and other parts in face-to-face interaction. The university of the future will enable a seamless navigation between these two modalities of learning.

Covid-19 highlights the need to reimagine the global institutional architecture of the higher education system and the partnerships that accompany it. This is an area that we have been working on at Wits for a number of years. If this pandemic demonstrates anything, it should be that while our challenges are global, local context and knowledge matter more than ever. Notice, for example, how the different parts of the globe battle with strategies for mitigating Covid-19 and how differently strategies such as a lockdown have different impacts across the globe.

Thus, we require high-quality institutions and human-resource capacities across the world to address both global challenges and their local manifestations. Moreover, unless institutions in the global South are simultaneously able to innovate in their local context and also able to generate ideas and solutions to global problems from the perspective of their context, we will not have reached effective and lasting solutions to global problems.

All of our challenges are transnational in character. Climate change, inequality, public health, social and political polarisation — all of these have global and local consequences.

So long as capable institutions and capacities do not exist across the world and in different contexts to contain global challenges such as infectious diseases, so long will the world remain vulnerable to the next crisis.  

This is why our global partnerships and the institutional architecture of higher education have to change to the “new” normal. Our global partnership model has not fundamentally changed since the 1980s. Its methodology is to direct scholarships to talented individuals in the developing world, and have them come to Europe and North America to acquire tertiary education. The assumption is of course that these students will return home. But the evidence of the past few decades is that this is not the case.

The corollary of this in the developing world is that institutions have been weakened, human-resource capacities are weakening or are not being developed, and inclusive development is being compromised. Of course, there are those who speak of brain circulation rather than brain drain, and the importance of remittances to the developing world. But if we are honest we would recognise that these are weak counter-trends that do not fundamentally change the negative institutional and structural dynamics that accompany the brain drain and compromise inclusive development.

We must stress that this is not only a problem for the developing world. It is as much a problem for the developed world. Herein lies the dilemma. As human-resource capacities decline in the developing world so does our ability to deal with the structural challenges of our era.

All of our challenges are transnational in character. Climate change, inequality, public health, social and political polarisation — all of these have global and local consequences. The Covid-19 pandemic is the most dramatic illustration of this.

The only way we have a fighting chance of beating Covid-19 is if the institutional infrastructure and human resources in both the developed and developing world exists and is able to stem the challenge at its source, wherever it emerges. Yet our global partnership methodologies undermine this, in practice if not in intent.

We hasten to argue that we are not advocating for autarchic retreat into nationalism and ethnicity. We do not believe this is possible and we are of the view that the human spirit has simultaneously an impulse to wander and explore — globalise if you like — and identify and familiarise (localise if you need a term to describe this). These are not mutually exclusive agendas as populist and nativist parties tend to suggest. Instead they can be complementary elements of a human existence.

What we are then advocating is a new methodology of global partnership, one more rooted in building institutions than individuals. In higher education this would require joint teaching programmes and split site scholarships that would enable students to gain scientific knowledge, develop a global consciousness, have access to new equipment and funding networks, and yet be sufficiently rooted in institutions of the developing world to allow for knowledge and skills to be deployed within their local contexts.

Such a methodology would also allow students from the developed world to have the opportunity to visit the developing world, have institutional settings that can host them, so that they too can understand the contextual circumstances they are visiting, and develop skills and knowledge that are more universally applicable.

Friedman and his intellectual allies used the economic crisis of the 1970s to bed down a set of ideas that reversed much of the post-war Keynesian social democratic consensus. These ideas came to be known as neoliberalism. While these ideas led to new sources of economic growth, they also generated the extremely high levels of inequality we live with today, both within countries and also between countries.

A child born in Luxembourg has the good fortune of growing up in a society with an annual GDP per capita of $113,196. In contrast, a child born in Burundi grows up in a society with an annual GDP per capita of just $290. Closer to home, compare inequalities in wealth in SA. The top 1% of South Africans are worth, on average, R17.8m, while the bottom 50% are each worth minus R16,000.

An important role for universities is to allow new ideas that challenge the current order to develop and to gain traction. For example, our economics departments should seek out economists that challenge our students to ask why the economy generates such high levels of inequality. And our business school should encourage the development of MBA courses that teach management beyond the “bottom line” — how can we restructure corporations to deliver equitable and sustainable outcomes for all, not just income for shareholders?  

Higher education has to reimagine its teaching, partnerships and institutional architecture, and objectives, to enable the building of quality institutions and human capacity across the globe. Only with such an equitable agenda of change, both in and across nations, will we be able to address the global challenges of our time and through this build a more cohesive human community without which we will not survive as a human species.

• Prof Habib, vice-chancellor and principal of Wits University, is director-elect of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Prof Valodia is dean of the Wits commerce, law & management faculty.