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African universities and connectedness in the information age

Van Schalkwyk, Francois

Chapter 9 switches focus from functions to networks, a dimension so far little attended to in the previous chapters. Yet the larger concern, that of mediating tensions, is the same. The chapter identifies two characteristic kinds of network that universities are involved in; the network with the scientific community, and the network with the world outside the university, often called ‘engagement’. Each kind of network can act as a ‘block’ to the other. This is not for reasons of bad faith. The more that academics engage in high level research that will draw the attention of the international peer community, the more the work runs the risk of being so decontextualised as to make its relevance to local contexts difficult to describe and discern; this is the basis for the long-standing animus against the ‘ivory tower’. The converse is also true; the more the work focuses on the local context only, the more that local context consumes its relevance, and the less the work will concern itself with relevance to a broader context – say, to the country, to regional Africa or to the scientific field. It is this potential conflict which must be mediated if the university is to be successful in both these key networks.

The particular focus in the chapter is on whether work which is directed to the local context is also directed to the scientific context, the tension above notwithstanding. The chapter finds examples of work that does both, and it is clear that careful design of the project at the outset is key. Certain academics are thus particularly adept at acting as ‘switches’ between the two networks. Equally, however, these are few and far between, and by and large few contextually directed projects also manage to contribute productively to the science function.

Published by African Minds.
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