City University of Hong KongBeyond Boundaries: how South African educators are helping to heal the mistakes of the past

Beyond Boundaries: how South African educators are helping to heal the mistakes of the past

City University of Hong Kong’s Beyond Boundaries series travels to the University of Cape Town to discuss global challenges

Universities have a responsibility to support and improve the lives of communities around them, agreed the presidents of City University of Hong Kong (CityU) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa during a discussion between the two leaders.

In the first episode of Beyond Boundaries, a new interview series produced by CityU, university president Way Kuo visited UCT to learn from its rich and troubled history, and to observe how the institution has evolved to become one of the best universities in Africa. 

CityU is an international university that emphasises the integration of research and teaching. It has a strong focus on diversity through cross-cultural studies, and its Beyond Boundaries series is an extension of that philosophy.

In conducting the series, Kuo set out to challenge viewers’ perceptions of the purpose of a university in the modern age. Speaking with Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of UCT, Kuo asked how the university deals with the historical challenges and legacy of apartheid today.

Founded in 1829, UCT is the oldest higher education institution in South Africa, and is well known for scientific advances including the first successful human heart transplant, undertaken by Christiaan Barnard in 1967.

UCT has also produced five Nobel laureates across medicine, chemistry and literature, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But one of the university’s proudest achievements, according to Phakeng, is the work it has undertaken to correct its past mistakes under apartheid.

“We have a problem with inequality in terms of socio-economic status, in terms of gender and race…We’ve decided to create access for students from low socio-economic status, for black students who were denied access to the university before,” Phakeng explained.

The university has set up programmes working with schools in communities near the campus, mentoring high school pupils to ensure they get the grades they need to go on to higher education. 

UCT has also undertaken work with the local community to return some of the items taken illegally from the land on which the university is situated, a process Phakeng described as “healing”.

“With reconciliation, we can build healing and emerge from there together…Our past started during colonisation [and] we can't wish that away. We have to build a better future,” she said. 

Phakeng added: “When we look at the future, we are not considering only the university. We are considering the world we live in: technological advancements, climate change, all of these challenges.”

Kuo agreed that universities had a responsibility “not just to educate students, but also…to look after society. We talk about internationalisation; I think your university is doing very well,” he told Phakeng, praising UCT’s all-female, multidisciplinary leadership board. 

“Diversity in our university is important because, if you don't have it, students won’t be open-minded,” Phakeng responded. “We want to produce graduates who are not only scientifically and technologically skilled but who can also hold their own anywhere else in the world.”

Find out more about CityU’s Beyond Boundaries series.

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