Beyond a tipping point

2018-07-01 06:26

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For many people, the word ‘university’ evokes a particular tradition – colonnade architecture, academic leaders and scientists of a particular race and gender, and ceremonies rooted in the medieval church origins of Western universities.

Until recently the portraits on the walls of a university in the Western world would probably display only white males.

The students would have come from a specific set of feeder schools, with shared cultures and backgrounds, and a deep familiarity with the culture reflected in the university.

But around the world this university culture is being challenged and changed.

I believe during the past 10 years we reached a tipping point in South African universities, as well as in those of other countries, reflecting the need to confront the dominance of traditional Western patriarchal culture and to transform that culture to be more diverse and inclusive.

At the University of Cape Town (UCT), transformation was progressing at a steady pace for more than two decades before I became vice-chancellor in 2008 and further progress was certainly one of my key goals.

In my installation address in August 2008, 14 years after democracy, I said: “The university community has still inadequately tackled the need for attitude shifts, culture shifts, proactive redress to ensure that black people and women feel at home here.”

In the past decade and, more urgently, in the past four years, the increasing numbers of students from non-traditional backgrounds have achieved a critical mass that emboldened their protest against the marginalisation they had been experiencing for many decades.

That protest has achieved results.

This is not to justify the unlawful protest behaviour that took place – I do not believe anything justifies that, nor that violent protest was necessary to achieve these goals.

But the mass protest, with the alliances between students and workers, led to the realisation among the broader community that the issues around institutional culture and affordability of higher education were deeply and widely felt. This generated a renewed commitment to accelerate transformation.

In the past 10 years UCT has produced 66 000 graduates. Almost all either find employment or go on to postgraduate studies, many at the world’s most competitive universities. Although we still have a way to go in terms of demographic transformation, our statistics show the significant changes in UCT’s student body since 2008.

. UCT’s student body has increased 27% from 22 608 to 28 694.

. There has been a 63% increase in total black student enrolments. This comprises a 46.7% increase in the number of black undergraduates, while the increase in black postgraduate enrolments has been even more dramatic at 131.8%.

. In line with UCT’s research focus, overall postgraduate enrolment has increased by 67%.

The growth in the proportion of black students is the result of efforts to address racialised educational disadvantage in UCT’s revised admissions policy; a new financial aid system to enable admission regardless of financial circumstances; and increased funding for interventions to boost student success rates.

For example, since 2017 UCT has given laptops and software to first-year students on financial aid, to ensure 24/7 access to a computer – an essential tool for learning and for accessing online educational resources, including recorded lectures.

To keep up with the growth of student numbers, UCT completed major building projects, including the 880-bed Obz Square residence and new lecture theatres and laboratories.

We strengthened incentives for students to engage in volunteer work, in part by introducing UCT Plus, which formally recognises a student’s social responsiveness activities on the degree transcript; and introducing the Global Citizenship and Leadership course.

The Hasso Plattner Institute for Design Thinking (d-school) – a sister institute to d-schools at Stanford and Potsdam universities – is an innovative development since 2016 that promotes a particular approach to design thinking and problem solving. Another new development is the graduate school of development policy and practice, which has raised our profile with senior public administrators across the continent by providing training programmes, thematic policy workshops, fellowships and a new master’s degree.

In the past decade UCT has been engaged in debates on the inclusivity of our environments, how we name buildings, the symbolic representation of our heritage and cultures (the removal of the iconic Rhode’s statue is the prime example), the curation of art and how we engage with those who experience the institution in radically different ways.

One highlight for me was building successful connections with black alumni, many of whom previously resisted participating in UCT convocation activities and elections.

These alumni have reconnected and are important role models for students.

We have, unfortunately, made only limited progress in recruiting and retaining black South African academic staff at professorial levels, in spite of considerable investment in programmes to “grow our own timber” – but the increase in mid-level black academic staff gives hope for a more diverse professoriate in the future.

This process, while fragile and uncertain, is making inroads: 67% of permanent academic staff recruited between May 2017 and April 2018 are black.

Another dimension of transformation has been the change to the working conditions and lives of about 1 300 service workers who were previously outsourced. Insourcing has dramatically improved the lives of about 25% of the university community.

Many new UCT projects seek to advance social justice outside the university. We strengthened ties with local communities through the establishment of a small campus in Philippi; projects with local schools to improve education in Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain; ongoing student support for schools and clinics through Shawco, Ubunye and other services; the CityLab project to facilitate discussion and policy on how to reverse the legacy of spatial apartheid and foster urban sustainability in Cape Town and surrounds; the Knowledge Partners programme to inspire postgraduate research for community-based projects; dozens of community-based health projects, such as the Perinatal Mental Health Project in Hanover Park, the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre in Masiphumelele, TB vaccine research in Worcester, and many more.

UCT has advanced from being “research-led” to “research-intensive” with an 85% increase in refereed publications and more than doubling publications with international academic partners. Several university-wide, transdisciplinary research programmes and institutes were established to address key national challenges. The research grants raised have increased three-fold in the decade.

To embed our African identity and connectedness in the global higher education landscape, UCT joined or founded three networks, in particular, which have promoted international research collaborations: The Worldwide Universities Network, the African Research Universities Alliance and the International Alliance of Research Universities.

UCT’s achievements reflect inspired leadership at many levels of the university, including students. Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who becomes vice-chancellor today, is one of those inspired leaders: a strong academic committed to research excellence.

Her experience at UCT in the past two years as deputy vice-chancellor in charge of research and internationalisation will ensure that these elements will remain the distinguishing features of UCT, though no doubt she will bring significant changes. She is especially eloquent in articulating the ways the institutional culture needs to change to create a more inclusive climate.

The tough times are certainly not over for higher education, but I am confident that UCT will continue its journey to an even more successful future.

- Price is the outgoing vice-chancellor of UCT

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