Stellenbosch University: ​Social Impact Symposium 2022 – Universities are about more than just teaching and learning

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Joining universities worldwide in the quest to embed social impact in their teaching and learning functions, Stellenbosch University (SU) recently hosted its annual Social Impact Symposium to reimagine the University’s social impact efforts. The event, hosted in hybrid mode by SU’s Division of Social Impact, attracted more than 170 stakeholders from higher education, government, business, the non-profitable sector and civil society.

“It is all linked”

In his opening remarks, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Wim de Villiers stressed the importance of reimagining social impact in the ever-changing higher education sector. “During the past two and a half years, we had to reimagine many aspects of how universities function and operate, especially in the learning and teaching space,” De Villiers said. “If we can reimagine learning and teaching, and fast-track models of hybrid learning, it means we are capable of reimagining social impact as well. It is all linked.”

Elaborating on the interconnectedness of social impact and the other functions of the University, he added: “We do not exist for ourselves; we do not practise our science and research in isolation or for our own benefit; we do not serve only certain groups. We are a public university in every sense of the word and have an impact on society and individual lives and livelihoods.”

The Rector further highlighted SU’s vision of being a leading research-intensive university that advances knowledge in service of society. “To realise this vision, we’re implementing, among others, hybrid learning, entrepreneurship and innovation, academic renewal to continue meeting the requirements of the global economy and escalating our hybrid model to exploit new markets via additional learning pathways.”

Universities must restore and rebuild

During the critical discourse for the remainder of the symposium, thought leaders, academics and professionals shared ideas and best practices for changing society for the better. South African economist and political scientist Prof William Gumede, an associate professor at the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand and executive chair of the Democracy Works Foundation, delivered a thought-provoking keynote address. He reflected on social impact in developing countries, and universities’ broader role in restoring a “broken society”.

According to Gumede, social impact includes universities’ task to promote democratic corporate citizenship, empower people both in and outside the institution, demonstrate honesty and compassion, and build a social compact in the communities where the university operates. In developing countries specifically, he said, the social impact should focus on building corporate welfare, social justice, democracy, ethics and morality. “There is a deep moral crisis in society and in all the governing systems in the country,” Gumede said. “Universities have the task to help rebuild those systems.”

To address the “morality crisis” in South Africa, he suggested that universities teach ethics, which should be compulsory for all students. Moreover, Gumede proposed that universities should help develop people’s resilience to crises, and their entrepreneurship skills. “We should train people to navigate problems, embrace them, and see opportunities,” he said. He also encouraged symposium guests to find innovative ways to solve the current problems in society, and not simply revert to old ideas.

In service of society

Dr Leslie van Rooi, senior director of the Division of Social Impact, closed the proceedings by saying: “Universities across the globe are moving away from the notion of being research-intensive only for the sake of doing research. We are moving towards universities that are inherently in service of society.”

Van Rooi concluded that an institution can embed social impact in its heart and soul. “It can be done by understanding what it means to engage, what it means to enable knowledge transfer, what it means to make society better, and what this will allow. Perhaps it will also force institutions such as Stellenbosch University not only to reflect on their history but to acknowledge it and allow themselves to be deeply changed.”

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