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What transformation looks like to SA vice-chancellors

- Kemantha Govender

South African vice-chancellors discussed transformation at their universities and how these challenges relate to the country.

Recent calls for transformation in the higher education sector is showing the growing impatience among young people, says University of Fort Hare’s Vice Chancellor, Dr Mvuyo Tom.

Tom was one of four South African vice-chancellors – Dr Max Price (University of Cape Town), Professor Dan Kgwadi (North-West University), and Professor Adam Habib (University of the Witwatersrand) – to speak at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics’ symposium which focused on transformation in the higher education sector on 17 March 2016.

The head of all these four universities acknowledged that transformation is paramount and spoke about the different forms it takes.

Change is key

Change is something that we must anticipate all the time within our lives, sectors and organisations and change cannot be avoided,” Tom said.

Advocating for a holistic approach to transformation, Tom said we should move beyond focusing on just one aspect of transformation at a time.

“Transformation should be such that it unleashes the human spirit and capabilities. We blame each other instead of taking positive steps and only focus on one aspect (of transformation),” he said.

He also called for the triple challenge (poverty, inequality and unemployment) in South Africa to be met with rapid transformation. “With poverty levels increasing, the inequality of social justice becomes more prominent.”

He suggested that transformation must also have practical applications and solutions if South Africa is to move forward.

Engaged scholarship

Price talked about how engaged scholarship or social responsiveness should be incorporated so that the core business of teaching and research could address the needs of communities.

He said that it is vital to look at things like how money from research grants can be used for community outreach and how people can be steered into research and teaching that can have greater community engagement.

He suggested that promotion criteria could go beyond looking at how many papers academics publish and also focus on their efforts towards engage scholarship.

Price gave an example of UCT law students who are required to fulfill a 60 hours community service requirement. “We need to make research responsive and we have the ability to make resources available to communities,” said Price. He was talking about an initiative in which organisations can engage with the University to work on collaborative projects or seek assistance from UCT. There has been at least 18 projects undertaken with communities, Price said.

Kgwadi urged university communities to challenge the stereotypes we hold as a way to contribute to transformation in the broader society. He said that there are lots of fears because of what transformation entails and we need more dialogue in this regard.

He stressed that equality needs to be the cornerstone of transformation. Kgwadi added that a new strategy that was approved by council to transform and position the North-West University as a superior learning institution with a commitment to social justice.

Alienation and access

Habib said there are two significant challenges that face higher education: alienation (even though majority of black students are in universities, they are alienated from the curriculum, symbols and practices and access (increase in number of students and decrease in subsidies).

“RhodesMustFall said alienation will no longer be around. It was never about the statue the statue was one manifestation of a broader alienation,” he said.

He said this activism raised imperative questions for students such as what does it mean to be an Africa student in an African university in this century?

Habib said we need a transformation agenda that looks at names, symbols, curricula, in-sourcing of workers and language challenges.

Access no longer affects just the poor, the middle class are also struggling and Habib said universities need to continue exploring opportunities to increasing funding for those students who don’t qualify for financial aid but also can’t afford fees.

Habib said for the moment, free education is not possible for everyone but should be free the poor.

“FeesMustFall brought to an end a system that says subsidies can decline and that fees can increase. Despite all the differences I have with the FeesMustFall activists, I agree with their demands,” said Habib.

Professor Ames Dhai, Director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics, said that there has been a growing demand for social relevance and accountability and universities have been challenged on their responsiveness since the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Universities have the capacity for reflecting in order to drive putting theory into practice wherein the underlying issues are identified and innovative solutions for societal issues are established.”

The symposium formed part of the week long Ethic Alive programme hosted by the Centre for Bioethics from 14 until 18 March 2016. Professor Martin Veller, Dean of Wits’ Faculty of Health Sciences, launched the Faculty’s Transformation Pledge at the symposium.