Bram Fischer scholars take a tip from Oxford

April 23, 1999

South African universities face a big challenge in meeting the demand for higher education from excluded sections of society with reduced funds.

Key to its post-apartheid development is the creation of a cadre of younger academics equipped with management skills and appreciation of good practice.

This winter, seven South African academics spent ten weeks in the hothouse atmosphere of Oxford to reflect on how to hone their skills to aid their universities' role in their society's transition to majority rule.

They were the first group to be nominated for the Bram Fischer Oxford-South Africa Awards Scheme, devised to help South African universities cope with the rapid expansion of students, particularly black students.

Bram Fischer, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, defended Nelson Mandela in the 1963 Rivonia treason trial and was himself charged with membership of the banned Communist Party.

Each of the five universities in the east and west Cape was asked to nominate candidates for the first phase. The second phase of the programme, which runs from January to March 2000, will draw on academics from the University of the North, Wi****ersrand, Vista and the University of the Orange Free State.

"The structure allows each of the seven to develop their own interests. I did not want to impose a course. There is no course, there is a programme," Katie Gray, director of the scheme, said.

The academics heard from experts from the Universities of East and North London and visited the institutions, where they found conditions closer to their own experience and institutional missions in South Africa than the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford. There were also strong links to Oxford Brooks University.

The scheme is aimed at strengthening the management, teaching and research skills of middle-level staff, particularly from former blacks-only universities. They must have occupied an established teaching post for at least three years and have enough experience and status in their own universities to stimulate change in their own departments and faculties after their spell at Oxford.

The seven, who returned to South Africa just before Easter, were from a mix of institutions from the historically black to liberal white. The logic of the transformation process is to make such terms obsolete.

Nadia Hartman is involved in the academic development programme at the University of Cape Town, where vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele is striving to alter the ethnic and gender mix.

"The time out for uninterrupted discussion with practitioners and researchers in the field, reading, and acquiring a comparative perspective, has deepened my understanding of the challenges facing higher education nationally, and South Africa in particular," she said.

Mark Hermans, of the department of Latin at the University of the Western Cape, added: "It gave me valuable time away from my daily teaching and administrative duties to reflect on my teaching practices and to develop my own research programme. This might have happened in South Africa, but ten weeks in Oxford have accelerated the process."

Both had found Oxford's resources incomparably more comprehensive than anything they had in South Africa.

Mr Hermans said: "What I have learned here at Oxford, I will use to influence not only my own teaching, but also that of my colleagues. In the end it is my institution and my students who have truly benefited from my visit to Oxford, for it is they who will enjoy the fruits of my labour."

The scheme follows a visit to South Africa by Sir Peter North, principal of Jesus College, when he was Oxford vice-chancellor.

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