Inyathelo in the Headlines

Building powerful partnerships to address university and societal challenges - 18 February 2019 -

How can South African higher education institutions (HEIs) learn from and build on a hugely successful philanthropic capacity-building project, to address other challenges that they ‒ and our society as a whole – face? Can new, powerful partnerships help address pressing needs such as transformation in HEIs and corporates?

This was debated at a recent HEI leadership retreat in Cape Town (21-23 January) marking the completion of a 13-year, US$22,4 million capacity-building programme in South Africa. Multi-faceted Advancement training, sponsored by The Kresge Foundation in the USA, has benefitted about a third of local universities, massively boosting their success in attracting philanthropic giving.

Better-known in America, Advancement enables organisations to work in a holistic, integrated way to attract resources for long-term sustainability. Elements such as governance, leadership, relationship-building and financial management are incorporated to identify and partner with philanthropic donors.

Russell Ally, chair of the Inyathelo board of trustees, moderated a discussion with three panellists: Universities South Africa CEO, Ahmed Bawa; managing director of The Kresge Foundation's Education Programme, Bill Moses; and GastrowBloch Philanthropies director Shelagh Gastrow.

“We are trying to understand the role that Advancement can play in a changing context,” said Ally. “We need to collectively take responsibility for how we take it forward. How can we integrate it, wed it to imperatives for transformation? How can a knowledge project and social justice be brought together? Besides donor partnerships, what other partnerships should universities develop?”

Bawa said it was vital for universities to rebuild their relationships with their publics. Universities are not only knowledge-intensive institutions, but also social institutions designed to benefit society. Over the past three years, Bawa had been struck by how little defence there had been of the university system.

Amidst changes on campuses, connections to local communities have waned. While Advancement must still focus on philanthropic giving, the higher education sector must also strengthen broader social ownership of higher education with the South African public to ensure that government prioritizes this important economic engine and bastion of civil society. Demonstrating that universities belong to the people of South Africa can only happen by building stronger connections between universities and South Africans.

The Advancement office could be where an HEI develops strategies to tackle its most pressing issues. “Advancement is not just about raising money,” said Moses, “it’s about strategically pulling together leadership threads in our institutions so there is a coherent approach.” And with a more coherent understanding within universities, each could better partner with its local community, to ensure broad support and long-term sustainability and relevance.

Moses reminded delegates of how universities educate a minority of the population – and are sometimes deemed to have contempt for people with less formal education. While many clamour to be part of a university, some institutions do not always embrace prospective students. To get the public to embrace universities, universities also need to embrace the public – and they need to share how universities produce valuable research, employ a broad range of people, and educate students.

Thoughtful collaboration is essential for effective Advancement efforts. But there are many potential stakeholders who are unaware of or do not currently engage with universities – in fact they may have no concept of such an institution, said Gastrow.

Collaboration, however, is often easier said than done. Philanthropists and other donors have diverse interests and their requirements do not always match up with what a university requires or needs. Companies may donate, for example, to ensure appropriate human resources, while international aid agencies may give on the basis of their country’s foreign policy objectives. Expectations of donors must be carefully negotiated and managed in effective partnerships, which requires training of Advancement staff to learn how to balance legitimately competing interests.

Moses provided various examples of university partnerships: The University Innovation Alliance in America, for example, is a national coalition of 11 public research universities that are committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates.

There are also regional consortia. In Michigan, in the USA, the University Research Corridor brings together the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University to attract public and private research dollars to metropolitan Detroit. They collectively liaise with state and national government and have a $16.5 billion economic impact on their region – about the same size as the state of Michigan’s entire tourism industry.

Ally gave examples of African partnerships such as the African Research Universities Alliance. Its goal is to enhance research and graduate training in member universities through several channels, including Centres of Excellence to be hosted by member universities. Bawa said that progress is currently being made on a joint doctoral programme covering mathematics, statistics and data analytics.

Speaking from the floor, an HEI Advancement director encouraged vice-chancellors to motivate their peers to support inter-institutional collaborations. Another delegate commented that the regional Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC), comprised of the Cape University of Technology, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape, could provide a platform for strategic alliances around certain projects. “Some activities are in the national interest. Can we organise regional collaborations and use CHEC as a platform for working collaboratively?”

Bawa emphasised the importance of big picture thinking and leaders designing what they want to achieve. It is challenging for Advancement staff if there is no helicopter view providing a sense of purpose. This is not only important for relationships between universities and their donor partners, but also to avoid silos within the HEIs themselves. Clarity is also needed to align groups of institutions around projects. Donor money is, after all, often “special money” for innovation and experimentation, and everyone involved must have a view of goals and what is envisaged.

Executive Director of Inyathelo, Nazeema Mohamed, said there is a need to develop frameworks for fixing the huge social challenges confronting South Africa on a daily basis. It is important to find strategies for eradicating gender-based violence, violent masculinity, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and discrimination that excludes people living with disabilities from living full lives.

New management structures are being created in HEIs and industry, she said, such as ombuds and transformation offices, employment equity and gender units, and more. However, these need to be more effectively and successfully inserted into the traditional institutional management frameworks through proper resourcing and training. They also need to be aligned more effectively to the research and teaching programmes of universities that focus on social justice.

“Our vision for universities is to produce workplace-ready professionals and graduates who positively impact and shape society by transforming the social malaise that currently characterises South Africa. We want our education system to produce graduates who embody the values of our Constitution and are committed to building a socially just democracy.”

Gastrow commented that many donors are interested in collaborating on new fields of need. Similarly to how a funder (Kresge), an NPO (Inyathelo) and universities partnered to foster Advancement capacity in South Africa, new partnerships could cultivate expertise to address other challenges. Both corporates and HEIs face transformation needs, for example, and together with funders and other stakeholders, could build expertise.

In conclusion, there is expertise and potential funding for innovative new collaborations to take HEIs forward, with benefits for society as a whole.

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