High-fliers helped to Oxford

September 26, 1997

Ngaio Crequer reports on an award scheme named after Nelson Mandela's lawyer

EXPORTING ideas and people to countries around the globe has been a long tradition at Oxford University. Now it is exporting its management skills and curricular know-how to help the emerging South African university system as it copes with the problems of transition from apartheid.

Oxford is overtly committing itself to the "new" South Africa with awards that will recognise high-fliers in the university system and give them the chance to see how other universities work, while expanding their own scholarly ambitions.

Fund organiser Carol McCall said: "A lot of scholarships draw students and academics away from the country and often they do not return. We want to ensure people return and we will be monitoring what happens, to see how they can implement what they have learned."

The Bram Fischer Oxford South Africa Awards, to give the scheme its full title, were launched to mark the conferment of a Degree by Diploma (the honorary degree awarded to heads of state) on President Nelson Mandela.

Bram Fischer, who read law at New College, 1932-34, was the leading defence lawyer for Mandela at his trials for treason in the early 1960s.

In 1966, Fischer was himself sentenced to life imprisonment under the Suppression of Communism Act.

Oxford was one of eight universities to give Nelson Mandela an honorary degree. In July, he endorsed the new scheme when he attended a ceremony of welcome in Convocation House. "It is one of the ironies of our history that many of those who were forced into exile found doors of learning opened to them that they could only dream of in their own country. That has brought an invaluable infusion into our thinking and helped equip us for the challenges of transformation," Mr Mandela said.

There are up to 100 South African students in Oxford, making it one of the strongest represented overseas countries, but the university wants still more. University chancellor, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, wants to strengthen traditional links "because of the degree of commitment and hope we have for the success of the new South Africa".

The seeds of the award scheme were sown during a visit South Africa by Peter North, the retiring vice chancellor, and Paul Flather, director of external relations. They visited to the university campuses of Witswatersrand, Cape Town, Natal, the Western Cape, Stellenbosch, Rhodes, Fort Hare, and Durban-Westville, and talked to vice chancellors of others, as well as senior education officials, academics, business representatives and heads of potential donor organisations.

"We did not just want a scheme where scholars sat in the Bodleian library," Dr Flather said. "We wanted to do something new, additional and special. We wanted to help during the transition."

The programme involves bringing able, young (under 35-ish) high-fliers, mainly from the so-called historically disadvantaged universities. In South African code this means black. The university system is under great pressure but there is a determination to cope with some 23 million blacks believed to be knocking on the universities' doors.

The programme has two aims: to provide management, teaching and research skills for those in middle management in South African universities, and also for them to undertake a major study programme in Oxford. As the university puts it, "it is believed that a significant period in Oxford, away from day to day work pressures, reflecting on, and studying the processes of university structures and operation, will do much to build individual capacity and in turn allow the capacity of the institution to develop. The people we are looking for are those who will turn out to be heads of department or pro vice chancellors. They would probably need to be scholars as well,"Dr Flather said.

"We want them to come out of the system, where they are under great pressure, spend time at Oxford, looking at how a university could run. We do not claim to have all the answers and Oxford Brookes University, with their excellent management training expertise, is going to be involved."

The core programme will cover lecturing skills and studying techniques, supervision of postgraduate and research students, student assessment, the running of a department, time tabling, finance, management of administrative staff and committee work.

This will be offered to all participants. Then they will be offered placements to relevant university departments. The idea is to give everyone a broad overview of the structures and procedures employed in the management of the university, both centrally and at college and departmental levels. Then would follow research in their own subject by the individual, either working towards a higher degree in which they are already involved at their own university, or possibly working on curriculum development.

More than Pounds 100,000 has already been pledged in the United Kingdom and Oxford is seeking five times this amount to keep it going for at least five years.

The university has a long relationship with South Africa. From the late 19th century it played an important role in that country, and the university has benefited from the benefactions of Rhodes and the Oppenheimer family who made fortunes in Southern Africa.

"We also have the capacity to fund raise which not all institutions have," said Dr Flather. "Up till recently the universities have been divided. Some have tried to open their doors, but by and large there are very few blacks.

"Now they want to encourage applicants from all backgrounds, they want to change the curriculum, bring on new staff, and clearly they do not want a whites-only senior management."

Dr North said: "Oxford has enjoyed long historical links with South Africa. The ending of apartheid at last allows us openly to refresh these links.

"We hope through this new scheme - developed after consultation with universities, education officials and experts and industrialists - to make our particular contribution to the transformation of higher education in South Africa. We hope the beneficiaries of the scheme will return to their universities better equipped for the challenges that lie ahead in helping to lead, and manage, change."

Last words go to Nelson Mandela. At July's ceremony in Oxford he warmly welcomed the awards. "As your earlier support advanced the struggle to free South and southern Africa from apartheid and destabilisation, this new programme will strengthen our efforts as a nation and a region to build anew."

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