Out of Africa and into a 'powerhouse of potential'

Leaving the University of Cape Town, Salford's new head tells John Gill of challenges old and new

November 13, 2008

During a 25-year career in South Africa, the next vice-chancellor of the University of Salford has learnt a thing or two about inequality and the virtues of widening participation.

Having spent the past two and a half decades at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he rose to the post of deputy vice-chancellor, Martin Hall has witnessed the country's transition from full-blown apartheid to vibrant democracy. Now he is to return to his native land to succeed Michael Harloe when he steps down next year at Salford.

Professor Hall grew up in Britain but moved to South Africa in the 1970s after graduating from the University of Cambridge. Of that time, he said: "I was first generation into university and benefited from a period when, on a means-tested basis, my family had almost no fees to pay; otherwise I wouldn't have been able to go. That has always stayed with me."

He said the problem he faced as an archaeology graduate was that Britain was already "pretty dug up". This prompted him and many of his peers to head for more exotic climes.

"There was this huge archaeological diaspora. People went all over the world - to Africa, Australia and America," he said. "It was an exciting opportunity, so I moved out to do my doctoral research on the origins of the Zulu kingdom.

"I was based in a museum, but museums are lonely places - you don't see people, you just see boxes. Occasionally someone will appear from behind a stack and you'll suspect they've been there for 30 years.

"But I was always intrigued by teaching. When the opportunity came to move to the University of Cape Town, I seized it."

Describing life in South Africa as "very tough" in the 1980s - "a time of burning tyres and barricades" - Professor Hall said: "One got very caught up in the political issues, and for me archaeology has always been an intensely political process."

He was very involved with the World Archaeological Congress during its boycott of South Africa, and when apartheid ended, he became its president.

But he acknowledges that, while he chose to stay in South Africa and, indirectly, may have prospered from the racist regime, others chose to leave in protest.

"I was very ambivalent about being in South Africa at the time," he explained. "First, apartheid looked endless. And secondly, although I think what we were doing was important, we weren't, with our chisels, exactly knocking into the edifice of the apartheid state - they were busy killing people.

"One felt all the time, am I really making a contribution? That's one of the reasons I stayed after 1994 and took South African citizenship, because I felt that, having benefited enormously from being here through the apartheid years, it was important to give back.

"That's also why I got involved with university management, because I wanted to do something for the transformative process. The thing about apartheid and racial segregation - one reason it is so wicked - is that, as a white person, you are an inadvertent beneficiary. Rightly or wrongly I stayed, although other people who I respect greatly did not, and may well have made the right decision."

Although much has changed since the post-apartheid elections of 1994, Professor Hall said South Africa was still, by many measures, "the most unequal society in the world".

University participation rates among the black population are still well below 20 per cent. Despite the horrors and lingering inequality - in higher education as well - he said there were many parallels to be drawn with the university sector in the UK.

"Inner cities begin to look startlingly similar whether you are in Cape Town, Washington or Glasgow," Professor Hall said. "The problem of access is very similar. Although the language is different in British higher education, the fact is that some socio-economic groups have a far higher chance of going to university than others.

"That hasn't shifted for 30 years, so it is a familiar set of problems. By definition, the word 'university' means universal, and we're in the same game wherever we are."

He said that a key challenge for Salford would be to create its own niche. "Universities are the generators of regional economies, and Salford is superbly positioned in the Greater Manchester area. Manchester is a large research-intensive [university], Manchester Metropolitan plays a huge and critical role in access, and Salford has to carve out a distinctive profile."

As someone who looked beyond national borders when he graduated three decades ago, Professor Hall's expertise will serve the university well on the international stage.

"Salford has more of an international outlook than it realises," he said. "For example, people in construction economics and management at UCT are hugely excited by my move because they recognise (Salford) as one of the world centres in their area.

"It has also got great potential in healthcare management, with models of good practice that could help developing countries in Africa and India. It is a powerhouse of potential."

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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