SOUTH AFRICA: Stellenbosch and the development goals

In 2000 the University of Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, drafted a strategy centred on five themes drawn from the Millennium Development Goals. It was based on Brazilian educator Paulo Freire's argument that "the needs of the wretched should take priority, which would ultimately benefit everyone, not just the poor," Vice-chancellor Russel Botman told the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference last week.

The themes are: fighting endemic poverty, contributing to human dignity and health, strengthening democracy and human rights, promoting peace and security, and balancing a sustainable environment with a competitive industry. They guide the university's core activities of teaching, research and community involvement.

Vice-chancellors attending the ACU conference of executive heads, held at the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch from 25-27 April and titled Universities and the Millennium Development Goals, took a tour of Stellenbosch University late one afternoon.

They saw massive banners draped from university buildings campus-wide, carrying "We believe" and "We can change the world" slogans. "The banners all have a common theme," said Botman. "Namely that we 'believe' the innovative work our staff and students do 'will change the world. Every piece of teaching and learning, research and community interaction in each of our 10 faculties helps to provide hope," said Botman.

Botman said staff members were asked to submit proposals for strategic projects that would help realise the millennium development themes. The selection committee was inundated with proposals, from which 21 projects were finally chosen. "Characteristic of all of them was a strong emphasis on cooperation across academic and institutional boundaries," he said.

The projects included the Africa Centre for HIV-Aids Management, the Agricultural Development Project and the Ukwanda Centre for Rural Health, established in 2002.

Ukwanda - Xhosa for "growing and developing within the community" - aims to move medical education from academic hospitals into real-world community settings. Students work under the supervision of doctors and nurses to provide much-needed services to the poor. The centre now has 10 rural sites across the Western and Eastern Cape. "Students get a rural perspective and under-serviced communities get healthcare," said Botman.

The strategic projects form part of Stellenbosch's Overarching Strategic Plan. It is designed to drive all core activities at the university and is itself driven by the university's commitment to redress its role as a formerly 'white', conservative Afrikaans institution under apartheid, by building a diverse staff and student body and promoting development in disadvantaged communities and areas.

"When I became rector and vice-chancellor, I dedicated my term of office to the realisation of this commitment," said Botman.

One example is the First-Year Academy, a campus-wide initiative to improve the academic performance of new students and to ultimately increase the number of graduates. Launched in 2007 the academy provides tutoring and mentoring to struggling students and conducts an early assessment test to gauge which students might be at risk of failing. Stellenbosch's undergraduate success rate of 82% surpasses the national average of 75% - and the university hopes to increase this figure to at least 84% by 2015.

Stellenbosch is also tackling the issue of an aging profession, a major challenge threatening the academic community in South Africa and Africa. The Legacy Project is working to recruit and retain young, especially black and women academics through academic and skills development programmes. "We are busy 'growing our own timber' and improving the diversity profile of our staff contingent," said Botman.

The university is also looking beyond the country's borders to help further Africa's development goals. Established in 2006, the Partnership for Africa's Next Generation of Academics (PANGeA) flourished in 2009 thanks to a number of strategic projects under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

PANGeA fosters collaboration between universities in Africa and currently includes the universities of Botswana, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Makerere in Uganda, Malawi and Stellenbosch. Ultimately, the initiative hopes to develop higher education across the continent by promoting collaborative research and exchange, offering full-time doctoral study and creating joint doctoral degree programmes.

"Hopefully [PANGeA] will expand academic collaboration throughout Africa in line with the MDGs," said Botman.

He said higher education had a key role to play in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and all universities were in a unique position to help.

"Improving the lives of people is the moral imperative of our time," said Botman. "And universities can do so in ways that strengthen their core function, which is to generate and disseminate knowledge to the benefit of society."