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UCT diversity

13 August 2015, 20:00

The current debate around transformation at UCT – and by extension academic institutions in South Africa – has undoubtedly raised the status of the subject of transformation within the public sphere.  However, for me, the debate has fundamentally failed to provide meaningful and practical strategies that can effectively enable the university to move towards leveraging existing initiatives to ensure that a pipeline of young students from historically marginalised groups is created.

There is one main reason why the current debate has been devoid of any meaningful strategies: it has taken place in a highly politicised atmosphere. This has shaped the debate in the following ways. Firstly, those frustrated with the lack of transformation at the university have largely resorted to presenting an essentialised caricature of the university; one which completely fails to acknowledge university management’s contemporary attempts to address the skewed representation that characterises the current staff body.

Secondly, and as a direct consequence of the former, the university has been unable to articulate its case (at least in regards to what it has done and still continues to do to ameliorate the lack of diversity amongst faculty). Instead, the university administration adopted a reactive approach which was primarily aimed at controlling the damage done to its image by appeasing aggrieved parties. In doing so, the university unfortunately refrained from boldly stating its attempts at ensuring progressive staff representation for purposes, I imagine, of limiting confrontation with a group which was by definition, victims of the institution’s practices.

Unfortunately, the direct consequence of this approach was that the debate was effectively deprived of a genuine chance to discuss verifiable data that could become the basis on which meaningful strategies of transformation could be derived. Thirdly, moderates, like me, who longed to speak about the non-political aspects of the debate effectively either self-censored, received little attention or were summarily dismissed as the ‘politics of pain’, to use Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass’s term, created a hyper-political climate.

For, whilst we recognize that it is true that diversity (or lack thereof) in spaces of knowledge production is a political subject, we equally recognize that there are technical issues that must be addressed and these need not be antithetical to what can be considered politically acceptable within the post-apartheid context.

Now that the political climate has simmered down, a fair analysis of the university’s diversity initiatives is not only prudent for purposes of transformation but for us as the UCT community to get back to our stock-in-trade: devising ideas and strategies that emerge from rigorous and systematic study instead of propagating prejudice and claims that are characterised by a paucity of facts as we witnessed a few months back.

In this vein, I believe an analysis of the university’s equity-inspired programs within the Centre for Higher Education and Development (CHED) Faculty provides the clearest identification of not only the problem that exist with university’s current efforts to diversify its staff body, but crucially, a window to a more practical and feasible solution to how a pipeline of young academics from under-represented groups can be created.

In doing this, I seek to reframe the current debate on transformation at the university by intervening with facts and a systematic analysis within a debate that has tended to valorise populist rhetoric and sloganeering over the analysis of real data. I do so from the position of a post graduate student who is a recipient of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a program which forms part of CHED’s attempts to create a pool of non-white academics.

CHED Equity Development Programs

UCT has in excess of 10 initiatives that are aimed at addressing transformation within higher education. In fact, it has a dedicated faculty, CHED, which attempts to deal with the challenges of higher education – of which transformation is one. The faculty administers Equity Development Programs which, according to its official vision, are specifically aimed at ‘contributing towards a diverse staff profile by increasing the pool of people from under-represented groups.’

Although not explicitly stated, current practice as the university defines under-represented in terms of colour and gender. Thus, the initiatives are aimed at assisting people of colour and women. These initiatives are: the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, the Carnegie Undergraduate Scholarship Program for Women in Science and Engineering, the Harvard/UCT Mandela Fellowships and the 100UP+ programme.

In its entirety the university has other equity initiatives that are administered outside CHED. However, in the pursuit of systematic analysis, it is useful to limit our attention to CHED-administered programs. This is primarily because CHED offers a central point where, crucially, there is both a vision as well as an existing structure of programs that are aimed at addressing what has now become the major central point in discussions around transformation of universities in the post 1994 era.

The main strength of the current programs is that they are all efforts at diversifying the staff body and should be evidence that the university’s administration is concerned about staff composition. In quite concrete ways, the existence of these programs should challenge the essentialised perspectives that have emerged from the radical voices which have painted the university’s administration as resistant to ensuring that a pipeline of black academics is created.

Yet it is the manner in which the university has structured these initiatives that is both imperfect and unsatisfactory. In practice, other than sharing the common character of contributing towards the output of academics from under-represented, the programs are nothing but disaggregated pipes that would make it difficult for even the most unfaltering sympathiser of the university to defend its claim that its equity-inspired programs are designed to engender a pipeline of academics from under-represented groups.

To illustrate these design and implementation flaws, I focus on the relationships that exist between CHED’s flagship equity initiative, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate program and the other equity initiatives administered within the faculty.

The Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Program (MMUF): A Case

Historically the forerunner of the equity initiatives that exist in CHED and undoubtedly the most effective in terms of postgraduate qualification outputs, the MMUF is an equity-inspired program that is awarded to highly performing 3rd year students of colour from the sciences and humanities. The program aims to diversify the faculty body by giving financial support and organized mentoring to the selected students, with a view that such students will proceed to enter and complete post graduate study, and ultimately obtain academic posts.

However, the terminal phase of the program is only a year later – when a recipient has graduated with an honours degree. Despite its brief term, the program is highly prestigious and successful. From its inception in 2002, the program has successfully contributed towards the realisation of 13 completed PhDs, over 10 pending PhDs; close to 40 Master’s degrees that have either been completed or are in the process of completion and about 70 Honours Degrees. Indeed, such numbers, although miniscule when compared to the sheer lack of non-white academics in the country, attests to how small but organised initiatives can effectively lead to a steady but consistent diversification of the academic departments.

On the surface, the output figures of the MMUF program suggest that the program is contributing effectively to the realisation of a pool of underrepresented groups. Indeed, I have witnessed, at various contained events, wherein the university uses these figures to make the case that it is contributing tangibly to the transformation of the academy.

Yet, I believe these figures do not represent the real potential of the program. I reason that, the true potential of the MMUF program, like all the other equity-inspired programs in CHED, can only be realised if they are aligned in ways that allow them to leverage the gains that are enabled by each initiative as well connecting them to other initiatives run outside CHED. In this way, the collective potential of the equity programs can be actualised.

Toward Creating a Functional Pipeline: Why Integration of Existing Programs is Crucial     

As it is, the recipient of the MMUF initiative can only be a 3rd year. A year later, that recipient ceases to get support as soon as they complete their Honours Degree. Such a recipient would have to find support elsewhere (financial or otherwise) to study for both a Master’s Degree and a PhD degree to be eligible for the next program, the Harvard-Mandela fellowship. Moreover, (s)he has to be employed by the university at the time of application. This fellowship, a cousin of the MMUF, is aimed at giving junior UCT academics international exposure and support.

Herein lies the problem: there is a huge disconnect that exists between two programs that are supposedly meant to be the pipeline from which a ‘pool of people from under-represented groups’ can be created.

As it is, it would require a minimum of 6 years for a MMUF recipient to be eligible to qualify for the next fellowship in line, the Harvard-Mandela. In light of the magnitude of such a disconnect, it is impossible to see how the university’s claims of creating the ‘pool’ can be actualised in such state a of affairs. The manner in which the programs are presently structured merely render the goal of producing PhDs fortuitous at best. Neither does the current structure allow for PhDs from equity development programs to be absorbed seamlessly into the staff body.

In fact, out of the 12 completed PhDs, only 1 holds an academic position in the university. True, the university can defend itself by arguing that it has little room to shape the target group of each fellowship as this is largely defined by the funder. However, in this case the two fellowships are in fact funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, a US based NPO.

On this basis, I believe that the university has sufficient room to negotiate ways in which there can be a practical alignment between the two fellowships. This is because, it would be beneficial for both the funder and the university (which holds the administrative functions of the fellowships) to leverage on the two initiatives given that they are undergirded by one vision. For, if the implementation of the programs remains as is, the disconnect that exists will neither serve the funders nor the university.

Therefore, it is essential that the university find ways of ensuring that the rift between the two programs is addressed either through negotiating for more funds from the same foundation or from elsewhere. Also, if the university’s vision for adopting equity development programs is to create a pool of academics that can transform the current staff body, then it’s only logical that the university adopts measures that can facilitate the absorption of PhDs from these initiatives into academic positions.

In regards to the Carnegie scholarship, the only positive is that, unlike the short tenure of the MMUF fellowship, the scholarship provides support for the four years of the undergraduate experience. In this way, there is a prolonged effort to nurture the development of young female academics in the science and engineering fields. Yet the same challenges that confront a MMUF fellow at the end of their Honours studies similarly confront Carnegie scholarship recipients after completing their undergraduate degrees: there is no follow-up program except the Harvard-Mandela.

Again, one can only be eligible to qualify after a minimum of 6 years. Indeed, the same fate awaits next years’ successful 100up+ graduates as this initiative too does not have a follow up. Funded by The Foschini Group (TFG), 100up+ is a program that builds on the Vice-Chancellor’s, Schools Development Unit-run 100up initiative which attempts to ‘address the problem of under-representation by targeting school learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and coaching them towards access to the university.’

As the program was only initiated last year, its recipients are yet to graduate but there is no set follow-up initiative to enable successful undergraduate qualifications to be turned into the much needed PhDs.

On the basis of the paralysing disconnect that exist between CHED’s equity development programs, the logical and most feasible solution, I think, lies in integrating currently existing programs so as to harness their true potential. Also, given the sheer cost that comes with setting up infrastructure that can enable the actualisation of a steady pool of faculty from under-represented groups, there’s a need to leverage the gains of CHED programs with other programs that are ordinarily run by the Post-Graduate Funding Office to ensure that the rift between Honours qualification and PhD completion is filled.

Only in this way can the university make a legitimate claim of actively pursuing practical strategies that are aimed at ‘increasing the pool of people from under-represented groups.’

Past Recipients of Equity Programs Need to Give Back

For the most part, critics of the university have raised arguments that limit the responsibility of transformation solely in the hands of the university administration. Such arguments, although helpful insofar as they create pressure on the university to prioritize the manner in which it allocates resources, tend to generate an expectation that transformation should be only funded by the university.

The unfortunate reality is that, there are real financial costs to transformation that require a more concerted effort than what is suggested by the university’s critics. Therefore, people who claim to understand the value of transformation should also be willing to contribute to its cause in concrete ways too.

It is no longer adequate for under-represented groups to just raise hollow populist arguments that border around a mentality of victimhood. The university as well as external players can only assist to a certain extent. It is, in fact, incumbent upon us to do more to change our circumstances. For this reason, I find it deeply worrying that former recipients of these Equity Development Programs, people whose accomplishments are testimony to the utility of these programs, have not come together to collectively set up an initiative that also contributes to the nurturing of scholars from under-represented groups.

Time to change the debate

Unlike the hyper-politicised debate that characterised most of last semester, there’s need for the UCT community to shift its attention to the practical ways of achieving transformation. True, the politicised debates were useful in the manner they raised the public debate around the issue as well as conscientize the university’s administration on the dire need to take action.

However, to continue with more hyper-politicized debates now, will only serve to diminish the gains made during last semester. As such, the debate should now shift to practical ways in which transformation should be actualised and this systematic piece is one step towards that conversation.

Tafadzwa Tivaringe is a Mellon-Mays Fellow and a Graduate Student in the Faculty for Humanities at the University of Cape Town. 

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