Over the past few decades, there has been a definite shift in the role of public universities, seeing that it has evolved from an almost exclusive focus on academics to a more society-focused role. This includes embracing our development function – not only internally in relation to our staff, students, and institutional operations, but also externally, extending to our region, our country, and our continent. An undeniable and very important part of South African universities’ mandate is to make a positive difference in the communities we serve. This includes embracing transformation, inclusivity, and diversity, as universities strive to be microcosms of the kind of community that we want to see in the broader society.
Reaching out to communities through engaged scholarship
At the University of the Free State (UFS), Engaged Scholarship is the vehicle we have elected to perform this very important public service role. In addition to Teaching and Learning and Research, Engaged Scholarship forms one of our three core strategic pillars. In essence, it is all about linking the best of the research, teaching, and learning skills of staff and students to specific learning and development needs of society. Almost all our academic courses have a service-learning component, where students apply what they have learned in and with communities. In this way, we are able to co-create new knowledge with our community-based partners, and to find innovative, sustainable solutions to pressing societal needs.
Holistic student support initiatives
With the introduction of free tertiary education for students from low-income families in South Africa a few years ago, higher learning opportunities have to a great extent been opened up to communities that have previously been excluded. For us as tertiary institutions, this has resulted in an important shift from focusing on solving the ‘access’ issue, to the question of how we ensure the ‘success’ of our students. At the UFS, we have developed a range of high-impact student support initiatives that holistically address the needs of the diverse student population on our three campuses. Our consistently high institutional success rate can be directly attributed to these initiatives.
Research conducted by our Department of Nutrition and Dietetics a few years ago, indicated that almost 60% of our student population suffered from food insecurity. Our No Student Hungry Bursary Programme was subsequently implemented, ensuring that this very basic need was taken care of, and that affected students received much-needed psychosocial support. Students are consequently allowed to focus on their studies without worrying about their next meal, thus increasing their chances of excelling academically and ultimately obtaining their degrees.