Talking about Big Issues in the University

Regional consultations in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific

University can and should be a place for serious thinking. When students step into the halls of the university, they often become immersed in discipline-specific debates and encounter challenging questions that reflect on the context of the culture and polity of society.

The Big Issues Project seeks to promote dialogue and theological engagement among faculty, students and IFES staff with the questions encountered in our universities. Over the past few months, regional consultations have taken place in Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Australia. Organised in partnership with local movements, these consultations have brought together individuals from different countries to share and learn together about the issues and questions facing Christians in their universities.

IFES is a very diverse movement. There are vast differences in the size and developmental stage of the national IFES movements, the number of staff, relationships with churches, access to resources (money, books, training…), stability and long-term viability. Between the different countries there is also a wide range of affluence, political stability, and cultural diversity. Yet the consultations demonstrated there are certain issues that are common.

Keep reading to find out about the questions and issues identified at the consultations.

English and Portuguese-speaking Africa (EPSA), October 2017

The consultation in Tanzania brought together 24 students, university faculty, and IFES staff from 12 different national movements in EPSA to discuss the issues they face as they seek to engage with their universities.

A point of reference was the idea of the university as a whole. As a tool for brainstorming, we began with a ‘spiritual map’, a way of visualising all aspects of the campus. The phrase ‘big issues’ immediately resonated with participants. The rubric of ‘big issues’ captures a wide range of experiences and situations common to movements across IFES-EPSA.

The group identified several issues across IFES-EPSA universities, including: religious fundamentalism, tribalism/ethnicity and decolonization. In their own university contexts, they are facing challenging questions:

  • Can I be a Christian and be involved in politics?
  • How can I relate to people of other faiths?
  • What is the purpose of a university in Africa?
  • How can a university function with so few resources?
  • What can we do about poverty, sexual immorality, corruption, and examination malpractice?

Grace Iyanda discussed the moment NIFES began identifying the need for research and development:

Of course, we were doing all the things we should be doing: Bible studies, missions and all that. But despite those, many of the students were having deep problems. And then in 2003, there was this leadership of national students who said, ‘You have not asked us what we need.’ They said, ‘You are just fashioning your training models from perceived needs.’ And so we sent out a circular, asking, ‘How much do you think NIFES is relevant?’ The answers came out: NIFES is good in Bible studies, but NIFES is not asking the real questions. The students were grappling with adverse school policies. Some of them came from very difficult home backgrounds and they battled to see God as being a loving God. They had these underlying problems that prevented them from following God as they should. In Nigeria, we have backgrounds of real poverty. The women were being drawn back by the male friends or boyfriends who were sponsoring them. So the management decided that it was time to have a kind of mechanism that gets information from students so we could pattern our training models after their needs.

This ultimately led NIFES to create a Research, Development, and Publications unit (now employing four full time staff) and the School of Entrepreneurial Development (SOED). The SOED curriculum aims to equip students and graduates with business skills in order to seek financial stability.

It was clear that ‘big issues’ are part and parcel of campus ministry. Along with providing new ideas, the consultation served as a sounding board and focal point for existing issues at the grassroots.

South Asia, November 2017

The consultation in Sri Lanka, 12–14 November 2017, brought together South Asian faculty, research scholars and staff from seven countries.

The consultation started with a study on the theology of engaging the University, led by Vinoth Ramachandra. A question that dominated the study was, “why do Christian colleges/universities across the globe lose their essential or distinctive Christian culture?”. The group considered this theme with regard to the calling of the university to society and the church.

The group discussed trends in education in the region, including:

  • Undemocratic decision making among faculty
  • Hierarchy maintained within the university (students, admin, staff)
  • Engineering and medical courses are idealized and privileged
  • Privatizing education
  • Corporate interests driving research agendas
  • A lack of community due to distance learning and students who commute
  • Bribery and ‘tuition’
  • Political influence and rewriting of history

The group explored the historical, sociological, cultural, anthropological, economic and political perspectives in their disciplines and then considered how those perspectives interact with the Christian worldview. Questions were raised on the disciplines’ assumptions about God, morality, broken and flawed human systems, justice, anddestiny. As the participants considered these questions in their teaching and research, they were encouraged to have a clear perspective on the Theology of Creation, Revelation, Sin and Reconciliation.

“Though I have been involved in many academic, research and development related consultancy meetings and realize its importance in planning and decision making, I never expected that similar consultancy meetings such as the “Big Issue Consultation in South Asia” would be so meaningful. This meeting made me realize the need to bridge the gap between spiritual and social issues; be an example in our own field of study and institute; address the issues and challenges faced by the society in general and the academia in particular by participating in dialogues. One conversation that stood out for me was the testimony of the participant from a sensitive country who despite being the only Christian faculty in her institute and at risk of discrimination and persecution is brave enough to witness her faith.” Faculty member

South Pacific, November 2017

The consultation in Australia brought together 16 individuals from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Many of the issues for the Pacific Islands are not unique to them but rather issues that are common across the Majority World. These issues are quite different to the issues in Australia and New Zealand.

Through group discussion and training sessions, the following issues were identified:

  • Purpose of the University: Is it a business? Are students customers? What is the role of community within a university?
  • Purpose of a University education: Is it to enable students to access high-paying jobs and an affluent lifestyle? What is the role of ethics in education? What is the responsibility of graduates to serve their communities?
  • Student strikes: In the past two years, the University of Papua New Guinea has often been closed by student strikes against government corruption.
  • Corruption: Participants said this is a significant issue in the Islands but was not discussed much.
  • Trauma from sexual abuse: In the Pacific Islands, there is an increasing awareness that many students have experienced sexual abuse, as children or teenagers, often from family members.
  • Ethnic conflict: Fiji is divided between ethnic Indians and Islanders. Papua New Guinea is divided along linguistic (wantok) lines. These societal divisions flow into the university, the church, and IFES groups.
  • Conflicts of values and world views: At the University of the South Pacific, there is often conflict between those of Western academics, NGOs, USA pop culture, and traditional island culture.
  • Student poverty: This makes it difficult for some students to complete their education and to participate in IFES training programs.
  • Lack of critical thinking: Like in most majority world contexts, the Pacific Islands have an educational system that is often centred on rote learning and the authority of teachers. Thus, it is counter-cultural to ask questions, particularly a big question for which the “correct” answer is not clear.
  • Lack of personal agency: In the Islands, people are usually told what to do, particularly by elders or foreigners. The idea of taking personal initiative to tackle a big issue is not familiar.
  • Lack of engagement with the Bible: Due to the lack of critical thinking and personal agency it is a struggle to motivate students to read and study the Bible, and particularly in a meaningful way where they must grasp its big story, think through what it actually says, and apply it appropriately to their own situations.

These issues lead us to the following questions:

  • How do South Pacific Christians live with integrity in a context of poverty, corruption, trauma, and ethnic division?
  • What is the purpose of a university?
  • How might IFES groups be a peacemaker in student strikes?
  • How might we build the capacity of IFES groups to engage with big questions?

This consultation showed the great value for networking and sharing ideas and resources between national movements. Given the geographic spread of the region and the great expense for travel within it, many participants feel isolated. One participant said,

“The real strength of the South Pacific consultation was not actually the Big Issues we discussed … The starting point for that was a rare chance for significant relationship building between key leaders.’’

Take part in the worldwide consultation

As part of the Big Issues Project we are making a formal survey of students, faculty and IFES staff. It will take about 30–60 minutes to complete. This will greatly help us know more about your context and what resources might be helpful for you.

Please complete the survey online here.

You can also find out more about the Big Issues in the University project.

All Conexión posts