A professor of ethics and development studies at Makerere University, Uganda, Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, has urged African universities to resist the pressure to develop students only on employability skills and focus on imparting knowledge that will empower students to live and address societal challenges.
Ssentongo gave the charge during a webinar recently hosted by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) and themed, ‘Transforming university processes, systems and learning experience’.
He said universities should refrain from responding to criticisms based on the old dichotomy of which programmes were most important for national development, that is arts and humanities programmes or courses in the natural sciences. Rather, he averred that institutions should assert that whatever courses they teach are for the sake of knowledge and broader life.
“While we should continue listening to industry and what it needs in terms of skills, we should explain to them the importance of learning. We should define what education is and what it is meant for in life.
Over and above equipping students with skills, we need to reduce focus on employment and focus on knowledge for living life and facing societal challenges that cannot be solved by technical skills.”
According to Ssentongo, most African societies are faced with the twin challenges of corruption and dishonesty, two vices worse than unemployment, that cannot be solved by technical and related skills that have increasingly become the main focus of education.
“We have to agree that education has a role to play in character-shaping. As it stands, we all acknowledge that corruption is making nonsense of both education and skills.
He noted that while universities strive to give students skills to create employment, education in many countries-oriented students to study for the sake of acquiring papers, as opposed to learning to acquire knowledge. As a result, students threw away their books and other learning material after graduating.
“Our universities need to go back to equipping learners with skills to imagine, to be creative, to arouse their curiosity, and to question things, even though our cultures do not encourage questioning, especially where elders are concerned,” Ssentongo advised.
During his presentation, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS) in South Africa and keynote speaker at the event, Professor Francis Petersen, said that, despite facing increasingly complex challenges, universities continue to play a crucial role as “engines of social mobility”, drivers of economic development and generators of new ideas. However, their mandate has shifted over time from being mere generators of knowledge and from a purely academic focus to playing a more society-focused role.
Peterson urged universities to renew themselves and reimagine their approaches to fulfil their mandates while remaining conscious of the rapid social, scientific and technological developments happening around them.
“To adapt to changes in society, African universities have no choice but to reform their teaching and learning approaches, curriculum and course content, research focus, systems and processes,” Petersen said.