The University of Cape Town is taking radical steps to prove that excellence is not the preserve of white males, says vice-chancellor Mampehla Ramphele
Will all the civil wars, bombs and industrial unrest confirm the international stereotype of Africa as an unpredictable, incomprehensible continent to be avoided by all but adventurers? Will the concept of the African Renaissance be stillborn? Was it a strategic mistake to conjure up so grandiose a vision for the continent when signs of growth emerged 18 months ago after decades of decline?
I have committed my term as vice-chancellor to ensuring that the University of Cape Town earns international recognition as an African institution of world stature. In the face of the conventional wisdom that "African brands" are a non-starter, I and my colleagues are determined to ensure that UCT exemplifies Africa's potential for success on her own ground.
Sceptics consider it a contradiction in terms to link "world-class" with "African". Then there are critics who believe the vision of being "world-class" is elitist and out of touch with a developing country trying to emerge from the legacy of apartheid.
My answer is the same to both the sceptics and the critics: it is essential for a developing country such as South Africa to have world-class institutions. Intellectual capital will become the currency by which nations trade in the 21st century. The development of a critical mass of intellectual capital will be the key to South Africa's success. It is the responsibility of our education system to ensure that we develop this critical mass.
The school system has failed to lay the foundations for world-class tertiary education. That is the biggest challenge we face. We have resisted the temptation of restricting enrolment to the limited number of students who have had good schooling. Instead we have assumed that there are extremely talented young people out there and that it is our responsibility first to find them and second to enable them to overcome the educational deficits of the past.
This is central to what we loosely call "transformation", a comprehensive process that describes changes ranging from our demographic profile to our institutional culture. Crucially, it also includes our commitment to sustained improvement until we are indisputably recognised as world-class. Equity and excellence: both are essential to the success of transformation.
We have been researching and implementing strategies to achieve equity and excellence for more than 15 years and I believe we are entitled to be cautiously optimistic.
Our alternative admissions research project was established during the mid-1980s to find ways of identifying students with the potential to succeed at university despite inferior schooling. The result was the emergence of an alternative admissions test, able to identify students with the ability to come to grips with new information and how to apply it.
The next challenge is to develop curricula that do justice to all our students, whatever their background. Our academic development programme has become the single largest department at UCT and will soon form the core of a new centre for higher education development.
Its central concept is that the teaching and learning environment must be tailored to cater for different levels of preparedness, in order to ensure that all students achieve the exit standards required of a UCT degree. At enrolment we enable students to plan, with expert advice, a degree extension of up to two years to compensate for past disadvantage. Other pioneering initiatives include foundation programmes, bridging programmes, mentorship schemes, "catch-net" courses, intensive additional tuition through a summer term, the writing centre, the multimedia centre and the careers office.
These strategies have resulted in the transformation of our undergraduate profile, which is now 51 per cent black. On the other hand, we have made little progress in changing our staff demography which remains predominantly white and male at senior academic levels.
Past policies have failed to recognise and develop black people and women. We have made it a priority to develop employment policies that apply our quest for excellence and equity to staff recruitment. We look out for undergraduate talent and offer incentives to students considering an academic career. We appoint recent black or women graduates with high potential to "supernumerary" contract posts, offering them further study and experience that make them competitive for vacancies that arise.
We believe that transformation can achieve equity while improving quality. Part of our international role is to provide a working model of a world-class African university that makes a respected contribution to scholarship, reflects the diversity of our society, and lays to rest the still prevalent assumption that excellence is the exclusive preserve of white males.