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Moving from pockets of excellence to interdisciplinary approaches to make an impact

Author: Professor José Frantz - Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation), University of the Western Cape, South Africa

Moving from pockets of excellence to interdisciplinary approaches to make an impact

(Published - 25 June 2020)

Moving from pockets of excellence to interdisciplinary approaches to make an impact: the case of the University of the Western Cape, South Africa

According to the G8 university summit in 2008, “Universities have a critical role to play in educating future generations, disseminating information about sustainability, and particularly by training leaders with the skills to solve regional and local problems from a global and interdisciplinary perspective”. The logic of interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability issues derives from a broad consensus that such issues cannot be sufficiently understood in isolation. Thus, an interdisciplinary approach to research, teaching and learning at university can be integral to address the principles of the SDGs. One of the broad principles governing the SDGs is that although they are global in nature, we need to consider the national and local realities of a country. In addition, there is a need to ensure an interdisciplinary focus including economic, social and environmental challenges.

Against this background, universities had to find a way post-2015 – which was the end of the eight Millennium Development Goals which was established following the Millennium Summit of the United Nations held in 2000 – to incorporate the SDGs into the university ethos in a manner that worked for them. In 2019, Times Higher Education university rankings ranked the University of the Western Cape (UWC) as one of the top 10 universities to address inequality (SDG 10) as part of their values, teaching and learning approaches, as well as research. This was linked to an institutional operating plan (2016-2020) that focused on a student-centred approach to teaching and learning and an engaged approach to research-led teaching and learning with a focus on making research count for communities. So, here are some of the strategies I employed as a deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation at a resource-constrained university.

  1. Developing niche areas

As part of the research-led teaching and learning strategy at UWC, at a postgraduate level, we are aware of the growing complexities facing local, regional and national imperatives. Thus, in a drive to support interdisciplinary research, teaching and learning, we have provided support from a central budget to assist in creating opportunities for building a critical mass around focus areas within the theme of global citizenship. The critical mass focus areas linked to global citizenship include data-intensive research, early childhood development, diversity in psychological practice, neuroscience, migration and mobility, leadership and governance, and social development and innovation.

  1. Developing T-shaped graduates

Through this interdisciplinary approach, the aim was to develop T-shaped postgraduate students. T-shaped postgraduate students are expected to have cross-cutting values, knowledge and skills, but also discipline-specific knowledge. Through the theme of global citizenship, we aimed to develop postgraduate students who had global competencies and were able to compete in a global environment. If we focus on effective citizenship, then students are able to look at the needs in their communities as well as apply their skills to the global context. This would enable students to become internationally mobile and readily employable. We aimed to provide students with a global orientation that develops skills linked to empathy, cultural sensitivity and values. The self-development opportunities allowed the students and researchers to look at the SDG goals linked to their niche area and apply them to their own research. Thus, the transversal competencies developed as T-shaped graduates helped students to grow and think critically across disciplines and apply their knowledge to enhance their own disciplines. Figure 2 and 3 below highlights the cross-cutting skills that we tried to instil in the students who participated in the niche areas.

  1. Interdisciplinary research and SDGs

If our students engage in an interdisciplinary manner to solve the research questions that they pose, then they improve their problem-solving skills, their critical thinking and their ability to be innovative. In our approach to developing niche areas, using global citizenship as a vehicle to drive research and address the SDGs, we also developed skills such as communication (publications – the written word, conference presentations – the spoken word, and workshops) and teamwork as students were forced to collectively address common problems.

  1. Framework to guide capacity development and niche development

Fostering a 'global citizen' perspective among graduates has become an integral part of the Higher Education (HE) discourse. As part of our capacity development framework, we used the model by Tuckman that includes the formingstormingnormingperforming model of group development, first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, who said that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to grow, face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results. Figure 4 below shows how each niche area developed in the different phases of the model, and currently, most of the niche areas are at the storming phase and will gradually move to the norming phase.

  1. Implementation and COVID-19

Continuing to use opportunities to drive interdisciplinary research to try and answer global research questions: As a collective, a team of researchers involved in this niche area of development embarked on a research project with UNESCO and JET for a 5-week period. The intention of the project was to show how during this COVID-19 pandemic we can continue to apply the principles of global citizenship. For example, with COVID-19, individuals must consider and accommodate the vulnerable and marginalised. Thus, we aimed to explore: how does the HE sector pursue quality education (SDG 4) that is inclusive of GCE? How do the reciprocal influences between stakeholders (e.g. the student and the institution) shape the conceptualization and implementation of a GCE agenda?

This process is not perfect, but it has yielded some results in that we are developing a core group of researchers who have an integral awareness of the SDGs and how we need to address them to impact society. We have also been able to produce outputs that have guided postgraduate students and their research foci with regard to how they can address the SDGs.

View the recording here: https://www.britishcouncil.org/going-global/live-events/global-goals-global-learning

 

Figure 1: Themes within global citizenship at UWC

 

Figure 3: Skills developed by researchers and students

 

Figure 4: Themes linked to SDGs

 

Figure 5: Tuckman Model for developing strong teams​

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