Western and patriarchal traditions and icons have come under scrutiny in universities in countries as diverse as the US, the UK and South Africa. At the same time, around the world, we are seeing a shift in student thinking about identity, knowledge, leadership and education.
We have seen it in events such as the removal of the statue of Cecil J. Rhodes from the University of Cape Town (UCT) after student protests in 2015, and similar protests against the veneration of colonial past leaders of universities in the UK and the US; in #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo activism; and in the student-led protests for stronger legislation against gun ownership in the US that followed the deadly shooting attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida this year.
What do these events have in common? Young people insisting that we do things differently.
Protest can help us to recognise when our comfort zone is no longer working. As a university leader, I believe that education institutions around the world can benefit from reassessing and rethinking the campus environment, how and what we teach, and how we measure excellence. Such a re-examination is necessary for higher education to be sustainable and relevant in our rapidly globalising, technologically focused environment.
Just 20 years ago, most students at UCT were white and male, spoke English at home and had at least one parent with a university degree. But our country, and our student profile, has changed since then. South African public higher education institutions had a total enrolment of about 585,000 in 2000. By 2016, that figure had grown by almost 67 per cent to 975,837 – and that increase was mostly students from disadvantaged communities.
These students identify with non-Western values. Their mother tongue is not English (although they may speak several languages). They come to university impatient for answers to the poverty and inequality that has burdened their parents and grandparents and that continues to grow worse every year. They come from homes that may not have running water, electricity or indoor toilets.
I came from a similar background. When I started school, my class sat under a tree because there were not enough classrooms for everybody. But I watched my mother, a domestic worker, go back to school and work hard to become a teacher. My parents never doubted that I would succeed in my education and career. My goal is to pass on that same belief to our students.
Since our democracy in 1994, South Africa has been working for economic transformation – creating growth opportunities for the almost 90 per cent of our population that was held back by apartheid. Transformation does not mean, as some people think, a lowering of the standards of excellence. On the contrary: excellence cannot be excluded just because it comes from a person who is different from you or me. Transformation means that we increase opportunities for excellence by recognising and rewarding the contribution that people from different cultures can bring. Black South Africans, who have received assistance since 1994 (and still need it now), have what it takes to help not only themselves but also the world.
To help speed up transformation, UCT seeks out the top-performing high school graduates from all South African communities, including poor rural areas. We offer financial assistance above and beyond the loans that the government provides to ensure that no academically deserving applicant is turned away for economic reasons. Our research examines the experiences and problems of poor people in townships and rural communities, and offers solutions that can influence government policy.
UCT provides laptops to first-year students who are on financial aid, to give them online access to classroom resources. We help first-year students adjust to the different environment and facilities that they encounter at university, including providing career advice and tutorials. UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development is devoted to helping our teaching faculties improve student success rates. Classroom technologies and digital library services make resources available online 24/7.
We know that while financial support is important for transformation and enabling the success of black students, it is not sufficient. Poverty is more than an income level: it is a socially constructed identity that leaves scars of psychological impoverishment. Poverty can be a significant risk factor for poor physical and mental health. It is for this reason that UCT has increased the number of staff members who can deal with mental health issues, and students and staff have access to a 24-hour helpline. Such steps are necessary to prepare students for the stresses that they are likely to encounter as they help to lead in a highly globalised, technologically advanced job market.
There is a long way to go. In discussions that UCT has held on curricula, students have said that they feel alienated by Western approaches to teaching, classroom structure and the hierarchy that they perceive between lecturers and students. They feel that they have no opportunities to share and discuss their own knowledge and experiences in the classroom. Case studies in classes may focus on white, Western experiences or ways of thinking with which students do not identify.
So UCT academics are working with students to reconsider what sources of knowledge are valued and how they are taught. These are not simple matters, and they are just a few of the many issues that students have raised. But we are working together to make UCT a community in which everyone feels at home and can achieve their potential.
We are also looking at ways to increase the number of black professors in South Africa. UCT has programmes to help black lecturers and research fellows move up the academic ladder more quickly, with the skills and research background that will support their promotions.
Universities the world over face similar challenges. Few institutions have a student body that represents only one cultural view. A university is perhaps the only place in some countries where different ideas can circulate, different views can be shared, to enrich our collective view of the world and help us seek new and better ways to approach problems such as climate change, urbanisation, health issues, crime and poverty. By changing the university environment, we can prepare students today to respond more effectively, with more diverse thinking and creativity, to the new problems the future will bring.
Mamokgethi Phakeng is vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.