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Opinion - Universities must be relevant to their communities

2021-08-20  Prof Jairos Kangira

Opinion - Universities must be relevant to their communities

Prof Judith Hall and Prof Jairos Kangira 

Universities are always interested in having international partners, partnerships which re-enforce their global standing. When they are secured, these partnerships are prestigious, they bring in funding, and they attract the best academics.  University staff, it is safe to say very often have an appetite for travel!  And yes, this operational mode certainly does work in terms of visibility and the famous university ranking tables.  This practice generates knowledge and wealth.

However, universities should always keep asking:  what are we actually for?  Has the need to have a high-profile international identity outstripped the needs of the original purpose of the institution of higher learning? 

When you ask people who live in the geographical vicinity of any university, what that university is for, the answer is almost always the same, and twofold: a university as a seat of learning serving the community (the concept of it being ‘our’ university); and a university being there to push forward the boundaries of knowledge, in other words, to indulge in research.  

This last, research, is quite clear, but the educational role of universities has changed over the years and centuries. Originally universities served their geographical area and then as their reputation for success increased, people started travelling to university.  A good example of this can be seen in Fourah Bay College, in Sierra Leone, the oldest university (of modern construct) in Africa, established in 1827.  It delivered an impressive standard of education from the very beginning, and very quickly everyone with aspirations wanted to join there and it became a regional hub of learning, in fact it became an international hub.

However, as prestigious bodies of learning develop, what about the local people?  Local people lose their opportunities, and thus they might be left behind. Universities are starting to wake up to the fact that they must be relevant to their communities, and they are developing policies to meet Civic Mission.  But what does the word Civic mean? Well according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Civic is of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs.  Actually, Civic is about everyone and their affairs, so Civic Mission is about how a university serves you: yourself.  

You define the purpose of a university. Asking what our citizens want from their university is a question which should be regularly asked.  

How often do we really engage meaningfully with our stakeholders?  The problem can come in multi-lingual and multi-cultural societies, as to how this is asked and how we interpret the answers.  In Namibia, with so many languages, do we make sufficient effort with this type of engagement? Whatever the answer is, positive or negative, we must keep asking the question as a point of self-reflection.

When you have, in Namibia, a handful of largely centralised universities, this is a particularly important question to keep asking.  Of course, the University of Namibia has campuses all over the country, but a lot of learning is still centralised to Windhoek. That is not a problem, as long as we are constantly interacting with our stakeholders, our multi-lingual, multi-cultural citizens, then we should not go far wrong.

This has never been more important than during the current Covid-19 pandemic: have our universities been serving the needs of the population?  Have they been using their expertise to deliver the very best possible outcomes for citizens all over the country, people experiencing the terrible ravages of Covid-19?  The simple answer is yes, of course they have.

It is true that our universities are doing their best, in what is, after all, an unprecedented situation.  Education is continuing, research is continuing (though under great strain), but impressively the Civic Mission of our Universities has increased dramatically.

Certainly, the philanthropic arm of the University of Namibia called ‘UNAM Cares’ has reached out deep into communities, making itself relevant to ordinary people.   

UNAM, through UNAM cares, has successfully served the needs of the citizens of this country. It has set up mobile Covid-19 testing facilities, established vaccination clinics and trained vaccination nurses. In addition, the university has manufactured its brand of sanitiser, processed Covid swabs and produced a wealth of Health Promotion materials suitable for all citizens. Taking cognisance of the fact that there is still ignorance about vaccination in the society, UNAM has run Covid awareness campaigns and vaccination projects all over the country, from //Kharas and Hardap to Erongo and Khomas, and shortly in northern Namibia. 

Furthermore, the production of small-scale Covid-19 health messages in multiple Namibian languages is assisting people a lot.  By doing this the university is sending out the message that everyone is valued by the university.  

In addition to this project there is a beautiful embroidery project for women in Rehoboth, producing wonderful, effective heartfelt messaging in fabric. Part of the community of every woman involved and her whole extended family.  Although, there is going to be a national exhibition of these artworks, honestly, they are most appreciated, felt, and effective within their communities. This simple ‘slow’ messaging has been understood and acted upon, those involved have got vaccinated. So #GetVaccinated.

If no one at all is to be left behind, finding time to do things well, on a small-scale really, really matters.  Universities must seek out different and effective ways to very honestly be part of, and relevant to, their communities. Small-scale matters as well as large-scale.

For all this great work to be as successful as it is, credit goes to dedicated men and women who have taken it upon themselves to improving the welfare of their fellow citizens by communicating Covid-19 facts and making Covid-19 interventions.  We have witnessed the active involvement of the academic and professional services staff of UNAM and, I am certain, those of the other universities in Namibia. Leading by example, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Namibia, Professor Kenneth Matengu, has been in the forefront of taking the university to the community through Unam Cares which is his brainchild. Working closely with Professor Judith Hall of Cardiff University, whose name has become a household name in Namibia, Prof Matengu and his team have scored huge successes in the endeavours. Equally spirited and energetic in the UNAM Cares Unit is Dr Rachel Freeman, and Frauke Stegmann who is responsible for the Art, Design and Stitch project in Rehoboth, and Simon Namesho taking charge of communications and marketing. The Ministry of Health and Social Services plays a pivotal role in the extremely challenging circumstances as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This partnership is strongly supported by the Welsh Government and Cardiff University Phoenix Project who are, as they prefer to be called, important ‘listening’ supporters.

In short, your universities are behind you, helping all of you as best as they can.

2021-08-20  Prof Jairos Kangira

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