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Top-ranked university goes 'Afropolitan'

Professor Max Price has led Africa's top-ranked university for four years. The University of Cape Town's vision is to be 'Afropolitan' and it is also highly international, with nearly 20% of students and 25% of academics from outside South Africa. Price told University World News what the institution is doing right.

The ‘Afropolitan’ idea has become the hallmark of Price’s leadership, and is the concept framing the university’s development drive into the future, even though how it would transpire was entirely unclear in the early years.

The ‘Afro’, he explained, is obviously a reference to the university’s focus on the continent. ‘Politan’ signifies “that it is not a retrospective look, a sort of naive subsidy economy, safari economy view of the continent, but rather a cosmopolitan and metropolitan view of a continent that is developing fast and is involved with the future".

The cosmopolitan approach highlights that Cape Town has strong representation from the rest of Africa and the rest of the world that meets in its classrooms. Many of the high proportions of international students and staff come from other countries in Africa. “That’s also part of the ‘Afropolitan’ vision.”

Backing onto the iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town, the University of Cape Town – or UCT – is a beautiful campus. Founded in 1829 as a high school for boys, the institution transformed into a university between 1880 and 1900 and much of its architecture is reminiscent of this period and the early 1900s.

Today, the university is medium-sized in South African terms, with 25,500 students, and a strong focus on research – 68% of its students are undergraduate and 32% postgraduate – and last year the university produced nearly 6,600 graduates.

South African universities charge tuition fees, and as a leading research institution, with more than 3,000 staff and 1,000 academics, Cape Town is expensive in local terms, charging around R38,000 (US$4,300) to R40,000 a year – though this is cheap in international terms.

UCT is the top African university in the three major global rankings. It ranks in the top 200 of the QS World University Rankings and is just outside the global top 100 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which has placed it in the top 50 in the life sciences and social sciences categories.

So what is Cape Town doing right, who is its leader and where is the university heading?


Max Price studied medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), another of South Africa’s leading research universities, and did his internship at the huge Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and went to Oxford University to study for a BA in politics, philosophy and economics.

This, he admitted, was “a little unusual for someone who has already done a medicine degree. Typically one might go on to do a postgraduate degree in the field, which would be advancing your career more. I chose to do the BA in politics and economics because I had felt that my medical degree was rather narrowing. It was a technical degree in an area of life sciences.”

Price was a student during the height of apartheid, and was active in student politics. “I didn’t have a good understanding of the political issues surrounding me and the country and its political future. The debates between socialism and liberalism, the debates around economic structures, debates about revolution and armed struggle.”

Interestingly, said Price, the BA has stood him “in very good stead for my subsequent career” – the ability to think philosophically, to argue a case and to look through an economic lens at issues in health, higher education and management.

After Oxford he returned to South Africa and worked in clinical medicine in hospitals, including a year spent in a rural hospital training nurses in primary health care. It was there that he became interested in public health and made it his career.

“That experience of teaching nurses gave me insight into some of the problems in the pedagogy of my own education. And it informed my approach to medical education reform, which was my major project when I was the dean of health sciences at Wits later on.”

After that year Price studied at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and obtained a masters in public health. He worked there as a health economist for two years before returning to South Africa to set up a health research policy unit at Wits.

He worked there from 1988 and was appointed dean of the health science faculty in 1996. He served as dean for 10 years, after which he “didn’t have an obvious job to move into and so went into independent consulting in public health before becoming vice-chancellor in 2008".

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The path to Afropolitanism

Under apartheid, South Africa’s universities were racially segregated but were overwhelmingly run by white men – even those established to serve black, Indian or ‘coloured’ (mixed race) people.

Historically white, English language universities, with their liberal bent, opposed apartheid, unlike historically white Afrikaans language universities that were close to the minority National Party. The ‘white’ English universities such as Cape Town had found ways of admitting black students and employing black academics, though in small numbers, and were quickest to select black leaders after democracy was achieved in 1994.

Professor Mamphela Ramphele became Cape Town’s first black and first woman vice-chancellor in 1996. She was succeeded by Professor Njabulo Ndebele in 2000. Price’s appointment in July 2008 was seen by many as unexpected – frankly, in racially-charged South Africa many believed more time would pass before a white man was again at the helm – and also because he was not an alumnus and had never worked at the institution.

Price’s predecessors had known the institution well, but he did not. “The first thing I knew I had to do was to sort of do nothing but listen for a year. To get around the institution, to meet as many people as possible, to visit every department. To understand what people thought was working and what wasn’t working, and quite slowly to build a vision and test it with people in the university.”

He was not short of ideas, which he had presented during the vice-chancellor selection process. They “had generated excitement so I knew there was already some interest”, he said.

“But in a university the nature of leadership is I think very different from say a corporation or a structure where as a CEO you can give direction and steer it strongly in that direction. The nature of a university is firstly very collegial, so no-one accepts really the authority of anyone else, of a dean or of a deputy vice-chancellor or a vice-chancellor.

“Secondly, the value of academic freedom is very deeply entrenched.” A vice-chancellor cannot lead from the top, for instance imposing a change in admissions policies (tampering with whom academics may teach) or in the curriculum (what academics are allowed to teach) or in research areas (what academics may research).

“So you can’t really lead strongly from the top or from the front. You have to inspire people with ideas and with a vision. You have to get them to buy into that, and get a critical mass to buy in so that eventually it becomes the major way of doing something at the university and it gets a critical consensus – or a sufficient consensus – to move forward.

“And that inevitably takes quite a lot longer than it might take in a different environment. One has to be patient, I think, to get there,” said Price. It took 18 months for the university to commit to a strategic plan with six main goals that were part of a new vision statement.

“That vision was built around the question, ‘Why would leading scientists, leading academics and top students want to come to UCT when they’ve got options all over the world?' We weren’t really seeing ourselves anymore as competing only in a local market. In that sense we could carry on doing what we were doing and we would be successful in the local market.

“But we weren’t yet a serious global player. So to become a global player, what does that mean? How do we become a destination of choice for a post-doc in Germany who could go to Imperial College or to Columbia University or to the University of Cape Town?”

The university would not be able to attract top academics with top salaries or fantastic laboratories and equipment or a critical mass of peers.

“We identified the need for some sort of niche area and some sort of comparative advantage and we thought that was our location on the continent,” said Price. Fortunately, by 2008 Africa was “coming into its own”, with six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies and rising international interest in trade and investment.

“There’s a kind of scramble for Africa between countries and corporations in the world because China’s very interested, and everyone else is frightened by that. So there’s an interest in understanding the continent and doing business with the continent, and we thought that we could capitalise on that.”

Cape Town’s goal is therefore to have more expertise than other universities about Africa in critical areas for the continent.

So, for example, climate change is a global concern and cannot be fully considered without knowing about what is happening in Africa and its oceans. But little was known about climate change in Africa and so UCT aspires to know more about this than any other university worldwide. If it succeeds it will become “a desirable and critical partner” to universities and scientists everywhere thinking about climate change.

The same argument can extend to infectious diseases, the development of medicines, post-conflict constitutional democracy, mineral resource extraction, regional economic trade, paleoanthropology, history, comparative African literature, politics and international relations, and so on. The business school is developing a niche area in emerging markets.

All have local specialisms that could be developed and position Cape Town as a global player.

At first, the idea of an 'Afropolitan' vision seemed just that – not much more than a deputy vice-chancellor going around talking about the Afropolitan vision while everybody else got on with business as usual. But as academics and departments began to respond, there were visible developments that began to illustrate the concept; for instance, the university’s launch this year of the major African Climate and Development Initiative.

“I think that vision has caught on now, four years later,” said Price. “It is a driving factor and it is helping position the university, slightly differently to how it was positioned and in a way that it is seen as a partner for other universities across the world.”

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Style of leadership

Leadership, Price argued, needs to and does adapt to different environments.

"I suppose that’s part of what leadership is, and there’s a time when it is really critical to be listening.

“I think that in a university, ideas matter and being able to articulate those ideas and be persuasive is really important,” he said. “I think one of my strengths is that I am articulate and that I am persuasive, some would say too tenacious, that when I get the bit between my teeth I don’t let it go. But that’s one of my qualities, I think – persistent."

He tries to motivate people around a vision, to inspire them, to persuade people that they can do something different, and better, and get them excited about an idea, either directly or by exposing them to ideas indirectly.

“Part of leadership is also change management.” Cape Town is an old university, which is generally doing well and therefore does not have a sense of crisis or of having to change, and so its staff are not necessarily well disposed to change. “Bringing about change is the biggest challenge that you face in an environment which doesn’t think that’s necessary.”

Price uses different change strategies.

“One of them is to build a movement for change, or build the number of people through slow, incremental steps. So you start with discussions in small groups or with people who you think are like-minded around an issue, and then develop a larger group, perhaps organise a conference or a seminar about it. And start expanding that until it seems to be an idea whose time has come, almost of its own accord, and it acquires a critical mass.”

Another change strategy, which Price believes work well in universities with strong traditions, like Cape Town and Wits, is to expose academics to developments around the world and give them a sense that the institution is falling behind. “There’s nothing that will rattle academics at UCT as much as a sense that we’re falling behind.”

When Price was dean of health sciences at Wits, he grew to believe that its curriculum was “stuck in the 1960s” and needed reform – but nobody else thought it needed to change. There, he employed two strategies.

The first was to invite the dean of Harvard’s medical school to Wits for two weeks, to observe the faculty and deliver a seminar at the end to report what he had seen and how it was doing. “I knew what he’d done at Harvard 10 years before, that he would tell us that we were dinosaurs and that if we carried on like this we would become extinct,” Price recalled.

“But hearing it from the dean of Harvard’s medical school changed the way [academics] thought about it and opened them to hearing in ways they wouldn’t hear from me. Because they would just think it was my idea or a bit off the wall.”

The second strategy was to take a team of five top faculty members on a visit to five faculties of health sciences around the world, to show them how leading institutions were doing things differently and there was no one right way of doing things – they all have their merits.

“It just helps loosen up thinking, open up thinking, and we did something similar last year.” Price sent a team from UCT to visit universities in Australia to think about issues such as quality assurance, use of information technology in teaching and graduate attributes.

“The group came back with lots of different ideas and they are now all working in different committees and different faculties. There’s not yet anything dramatic to show for it, but I think that the ideas percolate and I’ve no doubt that those will be the seeds of change.

“So one needs a whole lot of different strategies to lead change, especially, as I say, in an institution like a university where you don’t really have strong authority from the top.”

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Is there an African leader or scholar who you greatly admire?

Price said he greatly admired Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the vice-chancellor from 1996, “as an individual, as a leader, as an activist. She in some ways combines a lot of the things that are important to me as well”.

Ramphele was a medical doctor, and a political activist – and so was Price. “She’s continued to bring that activism through all her jobs, certainly in her current life. And I’ve tried to position the university and my own role within it as an activist role.

“I think universities have an obligation to be a moral compass and an intellectual compass to society. It’s a challenge university leaders should take on and I certainly try to do that.”

Price said he had never worked with Ramphele as a leader and they could have very different leadership styles, so he has not taken lessons from her in that regard. “It’s more what she represents as a moral leader and as an activist and someone who’s brought together these many different strands as well as being an educational leader.”

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What about transformation at the university?

Despite 18 years having lapsed since the end of apartheid, and two black vice-chancellors, Cape Town has been criticised for lack of transformation – of its institutional culture and of the racial composition of its academic staff.

Africans from elsewhere on the continent, and white women, appear to have grasped more opportunities than black South Africans, and at the professorial level especially UCT is “still very largely white and male”, admitted Price, adding that transformation of the faculty is his and the university’s biggest challenge.

“The student body has transformed quite successfully thus far. A long way to go still but by and large we’re achieving our goals.”

But faculty will take much longer, said Price, partly because of the time it takes to become a professor. The proportion of black people undertaking PhDs only started changing in the late 1990s, and after obtaining a PhD it usually takes 20 years to become a professor.

“So if the profile of PhDs was starting to change around 2000, the profile of professors is unlikely to start changing until 2020. And even then it will just be the beginning of change.

“But we’re all impatient. We are impatient in part because it seems unfair that nearly 20 years after 1994, after the democratic change, we should still have only 10% or 12% of our professors being South African black professors.

“We’re also impatient because it’s so important to have role models for the next generation. People don’t even aspire to academic careers, to doing PhDs and post-docs, if they don’t identify with those career paths and feel that it’s possible and desirable.”

UCT has recruited numerous academics from the rest of Africa, to diversify its demography and provide role models, “although it doesn’t strictly count as transformation because it’s not redress with respect to South African blacks who have previously been disadvantaged and who one would like to bring into those positions now”.

The university has interventions to accelerate the career paths of young black and women academics. There are special research development programmes, and emerging academics are encouraged to take sabbaticals more frequently, are relieved of teaching loads to focus on publication, are appointed mentors and are funded to attend international conferences.

A major factor, said Price, is the culture of the university – whether people feel valued, at home, and that they belong. “That will only change when the numbers change,” but can be tackled through multicultural workshop and other interventions. “We do a lot of that.” Other safety valves include an ombud, and an office of sexual and racial discrimination.

So transformation, said Price, is “my biggest challenge. It’s probably the area where I have least success, but that’s not for want of putting quite a lot of resources and energy into it.”

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How to you manage your time?

“I don’t know that I manage it very well,” Price admitted. “I work harder than I think I should in the sense that I don’t think its really healthy to work 18-hour days, but that does seem to be what it comes out at.”

One part of the job is fundraising and liaising with alumni, which is largely done off-campus and Price spends around 10% of his time travelling. “I’m away for four to six weeks of the year, outside the country and outside Cape Town.”

Another part of the job is managing conflicts and human resource issues, “the sort of thing any manager has to do at the top of an organisation, which usually is the result of appeals or things coming to the top. It doesn’t feel like terribly productive work”. But the buck stops with the vice-chancellor and he has no option. That takes a few hours a week.

“A lot of time is managing my managers or the people who report to me.” Price meets every second week with most of the main people who report to him.

“It may be that the span of control in my environment is too wide, that I should have another level of management between myself and others so that I don’t have so many people reporting to me, because it is time-consuming.”

But, he pointed out, there are four deputy vice-chancellors with whom he meets once a week, as well as executive directors of finance, of communications and marketing and of fundraising and alumni, who all report to him. He must meet with the deans of the eight faculties, the student president, the senior management team and others, all of which consumes nearly a day a week.

A further 30% of his time is spend on a plethora of committees, especially those he chairs, and work with council, senate and selection committees.

“The thinking tends to be done after hours, unfortunately. That’s the pity of it. One would like to have time carved out to read and think, and that tends to be after hours, as does the email, which is incessant and always a problem actually. But it just flows, overwhelms you – and a lot of time goes into dealing with that.”

Click here for the video clip

Do you have partnerships around Africa?

“Most research collaboration happens because individuals serendipitously find other individuals working in the same field, or for geographic reasons they need to work in a particular area and they link up with other academics in that area,” said Price. UCT does not pursue many partnerships because they “only work if the individuals want it to work, you can’t really drive it from the top”.

However, there is a lot happening in partnership with other universities in Africa, he continued, and UCT facilitates this by making funds available to academics who want to explore work in their field that is being done elsewhere in Africa.

On the teaching side, Cape Town regularly forges collaboration with other institutions. A highly successful example has been Ushepia – University Science, Humanities and Engineering Partnerships in Africa – which is a joint programme involving UCT and seven universities elsewhere in Africa.

It provides postgraduate training for academics in the partner universities, with most travelling to Cape Town. An agreement not to offer jobs to any of the trainees for four or five years after their qualifying, avoids poaching of staff, and there is joint PhD supervision.

“We have a whole lot of bilateral programmes as well, with individual institutions on the continent.” Price has been appointed to the council of the University of Ghana, Legon, “and that has created a link at a different level, which is very interesting and useful to develop”.

Click here for the video clip

What advice would you give to other universities, especially in Africa?

Price has met and visited vice-chancellors from across Africa, and stressed that South Africa was a-typical and he was careful about issuing advice. More than for individual universities, however, suggestions could be made regarding higher education systems in other countries.

“I think one of the strengths of the South African higher education system is that universities have huge autonomy. Autonomy from government and from outside interference.” For example, only four or five members of UCT’s council are appointed by government, with the rest from other constituencies: internal, students, alumni, convocation, donors, industry etc.

“That gives us a whole lot of autonomy.”

“There is no political interference or political say in the appointment of vice-chancellors. The universities here have the right to set their own salaries, whereas in many other countries salaries are set by the ministry. We have the right to set our own fees, and that’s critical. We have the right to determine our research and curricula agenda.”

This was one of the core elements of the success of South Africa’s leading institutions, said Price. “So one bit of advice to universities and university systems is: try to strengthen that autonomy. I don’t say we are not accountable. We are completely accountable. We are a public institution, but one can have accountability with that autonomy.”

Second, said Price, “is that not all universities can do the same thing, and there needs to be differentiation within the sector. There should be some universities that concentrate on undergraduate education, for example, and probably only a few in a country – especially a poorly resourced country – that offer PhD training and post-doc education.”

“You need to concentrate some of your resources in research centres of excellence, so that you have the critical mass to do PhD work and post-doc work. If you spread [resources] across all the universities, you probably don’t achieve that anywhere.”

Third, he argued, most countries would benefit from having one or two ‘world-class’ universities, and cannot afford to give the necessary support to all their universities.

“There’s a tough choice between whether you go for a completely equitable approach, which means you won’t have any globally competitive universities, or whether you recognise that one or two universities must be funded at a much higher level, in order to pay salaries that are globally competitive, and to attract staff and students through reputation.

“And that lifts up the whole country. It educates the academics for the rest of the country.”

Quite often, he added, improvement needs to be funded through differential fees. “So, a country that imposes a single fee on all universities is undermining the possibility of having some universities do better.”

“There are other ways of protecting access,” said Price, through bursary or scholarship systems that enable the poor to access high-fee universities. Currently, many African countries have lots of students who could pay fees – but they are studying abroad “because they are not happy with the quality of their education”.

In a nutshell, he concluded, his advice to African countries was autonomy, differentiation in higher education and some centres of excellence where posgraduate studies is very strong.

Click here for the video link


I met Professor Max Price during the maiden edition of the African Student Leaders' Summit held from on 6-10 September, 2010 at University of Cape Town - he is simply a firm believer in in every facet of the Development of Africa. Many thanks!

Efeturi Paul Odele on the University World News page
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