Universities need to be more modernised


By Thandisizwe Mgudlwa

“Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose” – Zora Neale Hurston – But one new, clear purpose is ‘use-orientation’ combined with curiosity.

Last year a publication called The University In Development: Case Studies Of Use-Oriented Research By David Cooper and published by the HSRC Press was added into the academic and research fields to further contribute to the development of education.

South Africa has a dynamic and respected research community within its universities, one which has grown as the universities themselves have expanded and transformed.

But what impacts are the new developments within universities having on academic research cultures and systems? And to what extent is the knowledge embedded in these university research centres of use in relation to the wider society?

UCT sociologist David Cooper explored then these and related issues in The University in Development: Case Studies of Use-Oriented Research (HSRC Press).

His extended longitudinal study, focused on research groupings at 11 Western Cape universities, was carried out over ten years and addresses several core questions.
Primarily, he asks how university research groupings can unlock knowledge for the benefit of the broader society, what factors enhance or inhibit this research, and what policy reforms nationally and within universities might be pursued to support such work.

Cooper’s analysis is supported by a new theoretical framework designed to reach a deeper understanding of the challenges facing research groupings.

The framework argues that these research groupings are part of a fundamental academic revolution, which Cooper terms a “second academic transformation” (following the first academic revolution of basic research in the 1800s and a second academic revolution in the late twentieth century, focusing on use-oriented research). The author also proposes that it is only possible to appreciate the strength of this university-based transformation when it is linked to an external, society-based revolution – a new post-1970s industrial revolution, driven by the knowledge economy.

Cooper provides a powerful analysis of the complex connection between the transformation in universities and our rapidly changing global economy and society.

Essentially, he proposes that this transformation is pushed by new capitalist economies seeking out use-oriented research at universities in order to survive and grow within the competitive international market – use-oriented forms of research which combine what he terms both ‘use-inspired basic research’ (UIBR) and ‘pure applied research’ (PAR).

The challenge for university research units is therefore how to better fulfill their mission of development – socio-economic-cultural – development – in a constructive and sustainable manner.

The concepts of a second academic transformation and a new knowledge-based capitalist industrial revolution provide the core for all the chapters that make up The University in Development: Case Studies of Use-Oriented Research.

The book comprises three sections: the first considers some global case studies of the academic transformation, in symbiosis with the new capitalist industrial revolution.

The second part focuses on research centres at Western Cape universities, in particular the combination of “creativity and chaos” in universities arising as the academic transformation evolves.

The third section poses that new concepts and policies of research are needed, if our universities are to unlock their knowledges for societal development, with greater social justice not only for industry but also for civil society.

The University in Development: Case Studies of Use-Oriented Research provides a rigorous and critically relevant examination of contemporary research centres and units in South Africa, presented against a backdrop of academic and socio-economic transformation. It will be of particular interest to scholars in the field of higher education and within the research community, as well as students of the sociology of knowledge, innovation studies, and those involved in policy-making.

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