How do we make universities useful?
There have been many comments in the recent past on the misalignment or the disconnect between universities and industries. Fair enough, some of these comments have a valid basis. It is common to read such articles in our local dailies. In this sense, universities are perceived from a pragmatic angle, or phrased in another way, how practical knowledge given in universities can be applied to industry (entrepreneurial nature of universities). The recent fad is to dub some of these universities as entrepreneurial universities, a term which can be traced to proponents like Burton Clark(Creating Entrepreneurial Universities, 2001). Some of these universities, in South Africa, Europe and America, are in the prestigious bracket of research universities(as opposed to teaching universities). The other side of the divide are scholars who have tried to emphasize that the main role of universities is knowledge generation; the main catch phrase in this case is knowledge for the sake of knowledge..
These scholars have referred to such universities as Blue Sky universities: aim for the sky, for the sky is the limit, in terms of knowledge generation. In this sense, knowledge is its own end, as Newman phrased it very well in a collection of his lectures which have been collected into a book titled The Idea of a University(1854). It appears these two views are very different and contrast sharply. But is there another way to look at the whole story? Is there a way to combine the search or pursuit for knowledge with its pragmatic use?
A recent research article written by Alfred Kitawi, a lecturer at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and published in the Journal of Contemporary Issues in Education Research (Journal 7, vol 2) [http://journals.cluteonline.com/index.php/CIER/issue/current], looks at how universities can contribute to communities capacities. It begins by examining how specific students undertaking the education management courses at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences implemented
action research projects in their own institutions. Action Research is a relatively new methodology. Its benefits are that it equips the practitioners with the relevant tools to use theory (what is learnt in class) to address specific problems faced in their institutions. In such cases, they identify a problem and then use the theory learnt during their modular sessions to address a problem.
The advantage, unlike the traditional kind of research undertaken by universities, is that a student does not stop at the point of proposing solutions in his thesis or project (then neatly burried in a shelf). A student implements specific solutions and then reflects on how these solutions impact the immediate and remote environment. A total of 60 such projects have been implemented. The other interesting outcome is that, in most cases, when communities realize the commitment and effort that a manager of an educational institution is putting in order to address institutional problems, the communities are eager to contribute their own resources. Action research therefore brings out three important benefits: it helps the practitioner researcher solve problems; it brings theory into action; the immediate and remote communities are engaged in the research. This leads to the capacities of the researcher and the communities being developed. This research is one of the first research pieces which examines universities can help harness the capacities of the researcher and the communities in solving specific problems.
Can the same approach be applied in other fields such as information technology, business management and tourism management…? After reading the research article, which is on open access, my guess is as good as yours!