A responsive higher education sector: Building a greener future

Professor Thoko Mayekiso is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga. Photo: Supplied

Professor Thoko Mayekiso is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga. Photo: Supplied

Published Jan 24, 2024


By Thoko Mayekiso

Higher education is as critical to the global efforts to combat climate change as witnessed by universities’ globally increasingly recognising their responsibility to society and actively contributing to the mitigation of and adaptation response to the crisis.

At the University of Mpumalanga and the Presidential Climate Commission, we are exploring a partnership of ensuring that our transition to a net zero is a just one.

Importantly the university is committed to exploring practical steps in employing our academic discipline through research, teaching and learning to support South Africa’s climate change response measures and the just transition roadmap.

However, like many other institutions in South Africa, the university is yet to fully articulate its contribution towards the efforts, through its curricula and research programmes that reflect the interdisciplinary nature of the climate crisis.

The University of Mpumalanga is positioning itself as an African university rooted in its home province of Mpumalanga and responsive to its immediate political, socio-economic, geographical and historical context, as well as to its place in the world.

By becoming actively engaged in efforts against climate change, the university can provide research-based and educational solutions to identify the most critical climate impacts and ways to handle them. By raising awareness of the problem and supporting capacity and capability building, we can encourage changes in attitudes and behaviours, focusing on adaptive change in preparing people to face the challenges of a changing climate.

Our country has had its fair share of climate-change-induced events from extreme heat patterns, protracted drought, increased flooding, more intense storms and rising sea levels. At the core of the life-threatening developments is what scientists call global warming attributed to natural phenomenal but the main contributor being human activity.

Mpumalanga is home to the country’s critical coal plants. Any transition from coal to clean energy resources should ensure that “the lives and communities that are tied to high-emitting energy industries (for example, coal) are not left behind, in the shift towards a low emissions economy”.

As a comprehensive institution, we understand that its academic project must combine the creation and transfer of knowledge and skills and the development of students as independent and critical thinkers with a passion for knowledge and its application.

As a seat of learning, we hold a view that there is a silver lining in every cloud. It is for that reason that we couldn’t agree more with the view expressed by the Presidential Climate Commission “that a well-managed Just Energy Transition can be a strong driver for new jobs, better jobs, social justice and poverty eradication”. This is a bold and ambitious goal which we embrace without reservation.

There is no doubt that the goal cannot be achieved without a systematic and planned strategy and in this regard, conscious of the challenge we face. At a strategic level and in line with the university’s Vision “To be an African University leading in creating opportunities for sustainable development through innovation”, our goal is to make a pioneering, critical and constructive contribution through the production and dissemination of knowledge.

We are committed to using the university’s knowledge assets to actively and creatively promote a vibrant economic, social and political democracy in which all sections of society, particularly the poor, can find a meaningful place in society.

By becoming actively engaged in efforts against climate change, we can provide research-based and educational solutions to the most critical impacts and ways to handle them, by creating, testing and disseminating information about climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

As an engaged university, we understand that partnership with industry is crucial if we are to produce ways in which we can develop new technologies that will lead to the production of low emission of carbon from our fossil fuel.

We also understand that we will fail if we are not aligned to the struggles of communities because as it should, a just transition puts people at the centre of decision making, especially those most impacted – the poor, women, people with disabilities and the youth, empowering and equipping them for new opportunities for the future.

In the same way that science has contributed in no small measure to our technological development, it can also be a source of redemption. We should harness the same innovative spirit and be part of the global community that is in search of ways to address global warming.

Professor Thoko Mayekiso is the vice-chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga. Photo: Supplied Photo: Supplied (UMP).

*This is an abridged version of her speech at the Inaugural Public Colloquium of Just Transition Learning and Research on Monday, January 22 at UMP.