Don's Diary

September 1, 1995

Monday. Arrive in Cape Town for a five-day return visit to five South African universities. In January a number of South African universities came to see us as a good example of a multicultural university, which is what South African universities are rapidly trying to become. Go straight to the University of Cape Town, one of the older, established ex-white universities.

The vice chancellor and I discuss the rapid transformation at UCT, from having only a tiny percentage of non-white students (in defiance of the then government) to around 40 per cent now. Access-widening on this timescale is beyond anything ever attempted in the United Kingdom. Later we meet the director of academic development programmes. The problem is that of the African population (around 32 million of the total 40 million population) most have attended poor quality schools with poorly-trained teachers and few, if any, facilities. They are therefore severely disadvantaged in the matriculation examinations which normally determine university entrance. Her team has devised alternative tests which evaluate aptitude rather than knowledge.

Tuesday. The day starts with a briefing on the recently established National Commission for Education. The key feature of higher education in South Africa is that there is no national system - the universities operate more or less independently. Then on to visit Cape Technikon. This is an ex-white institution as well, although also rapidly "Africanising". To deal with educational disadvantage the Technikon has introduced psychometric tests to evaluate the potential of applicants rather than judge them by their matriculation results. In the afternoon we are taken to a squatter camp. (Not to be confused with the townships on the edge of all towns which were deliberately established under apartheid.) These people are very poor: houses are tin shacks, sanitation is rudimentary. Ironically the squatter camp is at the foot of Table Mountain, one of Cape Town's best-known attractions. For all that, things were encouraging: a civic committee has been set up to represent the people and a company employed by the local authority to maintain the site and clean up. This particular camp housed 4,000-5,000 people. At the end of the visit we were taken to the local "shebeen" to experience African beer - obviously an acquired taste!

Wednesday.Visit to the University of Zululand in Kwazulu - the home of the Zulu people. This was the result of a chance meeting in London some months ago with the King of Zululand. The student population is African although many of the staff below vice chancellor and deputy vice chancellor are white. The university is deeply in debt because many students simply turn up at the door with no funds but insist on being enrolled. Later in the day we visit the tribal lands beyond the university. There are no roads, just tracks, some of them steep and rugged. During the rains they become deep mud. The journey is fascinating - a rural community with traditional thatched, mud-walled, circular huts. Inside are very few possessions. There is no electricity, sanitation or postal service. The cattle are herded by barefoot children and the water source is some distance. The people are impressively friendly.

Thursday.Visit to the University of Durban-Westville. Under apartheid this was wholly Indian: now the same rapid process of transformation and Africanisation is taking place and it is 40 per cent black. Here the process of widening access is to adjust matriculation points according to the school of origin. The assumption is that if Africans perform well in matriculation in spite of their relatively poor schooling, they must be highly motivated. Over lunch we discover some horrendous student-staff ratios - 136:1 in both English and law. Staff have to draft in extra help to deal with assignment marking. We discover that Durban-Westville is in the early stages of university-side modularisation. I hear the word "curriculate" and assume it is a solecism, but learn that it is a direct translation of an Afrikaans word. In exchange we throw in the phrase "phantom modularisation". It is taken up with alacrity.

Friday.We visit the University of Natal in Durban, an old, white university. Africanisation has reached almost 25 per cent. There are also substantial numbers of Indian students at the university. Student-staff ratios are 60:1 in accounting and 40:1 in law. Access-widening is supported by graduate students providing supplementary instruction where necessary. On a walkabout in the very pleasant, sub-tropical campus the different student congregation areas are pointed out - Indians here, Africans there. In response to my obvious surprise I am reminded that these are early days yet in the new South Africa.

Saturday. On the flight back I reflect on a fascinating trip, not least for the chance to witness first-hand the goodwill with which all sections of the population are tackling the huge problems of rapid social, political and economic transformation. In the universities the ingenuity with which they are widening access is very impressive. University problems in the UK seem, in comparison, minor, even trivial.

Frank Gould

Vice chancellor of the University of East London.

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