A university that epitomises a society in transition

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) epitomises the notion that institutions of higher learning are a microcosm of society. The university mirrors a myriad of South African societal dynamics, including inequality, that stifles economic growth and perpetuates racial segregation – a cornerstone of the apartheid and colonial systems.

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently noted, at the G20 Investment Summit in Berlin, that South Africa is the most unequal society in the world.

While the republic’s leadership toils away at balancing the scales, universities have an equally onerous responsibility on campuses. Enabling access to university is just part of the journey. The challenge is to create an enabling and sustainable environment where students – many of whom are severely economically disadvantaged – can succeed.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

The story of Dr Lwando Mdleleni is a case in point. He was one of five children to a single mother. He survived on just more than ZAR4.20 (US$0.3) a day before his bursary came into effect at UWC in 2005.

His financial award did not meet all his needs and the university’s Centre for Student Support Services, founded on the premise of ubuntu and compassion, filled the gaps. He became the first in his family to obtain his PhD. At UWC, Mdleleni’s story is not unique.

An equal chance to graduate

UWC has established an extensive network of support structures – some of which date back more than 20 years – to ensure that every student has an equal and fair chance of graduating.

As a historically disadvantaged institution operating among top tier universities in South Africa, we take pride that our students are more resilient because of their personal upheavals. However, being resilient does not mean one is not damaged or affected somehow.

The Division for Student Development and Support (SDS), therefore, for example, incorporates services with a diversity of research-based interventions and programmes to address financial, medical and psychosocial issues. It also prioritises differently abled students, addresses food security and mental health wellness needs and fosters socially responsive and responsible student leadership.

As part of efforts to provide students with a comprehensive holistic, well-rounded experience, the SDS Division continuously fosters collaboration with partners across faculties and departments to achieve institutional objectives.

Student campaigns

The UWC student leadership, backed by the SDS Division, has conceived the Ikamva Lethu – Our Future – Fund campaign to help academically deserving students to register and be assisted with study materials, food support and to complete their studies successfully.

Similarly, there is the #AccesstoSuccess campaign, driven by the Institutional Advancement Office’s Alumni Relations, which encourages alumni and staff to donate towards students’ fees.

As the intellectual home of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, UWC can have authentic conversations about some of the challenges the country’s tertiary education sector faces. These include reflections on transformation, the decolonisation of the curriculum and the issue of granting affordable university access.

Facilitating access to quality higher education is part of the DNA of UWC. It had already enrolled black students at the height of apartheid in the face of its segregation laws that categorised it as a ‘coloureds-only’ institution. When other universities opened their doors to a more diverse student body with the dawn of democracy, UWC had already blazed a trail to accommodate students of all races.

The rise of the national #FeesMustFall movement that saw mass protests by students at various institutions, from 2015 to 2017, drove the challenges of inequality home. UWC was not immune and had to re-imagine its role along with all other universities in addressing these shortcomings and inequality in our higher education sector. Its history, in particular, has primed UWC to address the challenges in an honest, robust and transparent manner.

UWC’s current Institutional Operating Plan – the four-year framework setting out the university’s strategic objectives – ranks the ‘student experience’ as the first of eight core goal areas. The Institutional Operating Plan says of the student experience: “UWC has a long-standing commitment to providing epistemological access to higher education. Underlying this commitment is a concern with both access to higher education and success in it.

“Students should have every opportunity to excel in their studies so that they can contribute to national development. Being well-versed in their disciplines is only part of what is needed.”

This is critical because it forges lasting and mutually beneficial relations with communities as part of promoting active citizenry.

No blueprint

If South Africa is to break the cycle of inequality, it needs to re-examine access to university in a transformative, sustainable way so that it becomes a means to success. A blueprint for this colossal task does not exist. Therefore constructive conversations and actions on campus and beyond are imperative.

As a university we are always reminded of what former president Nelson Mandela said when he accepted his first honorary doctorate at UWC in 1990: “As we lead our country away from minority domination to a people’s democracy, it is inappropriate that our universities continue to reproduce patterns and practices that will undermine what we are trying to build.

“UWC has taken the lead in the radical transformation of our thinking about the interests universities should serve. We must begin by recognising that ours is an African, developing country, the majority of whose inhabitants live in circumstances of poverty and who suffer a quality of life calculated to dehumanise them...”

Professor Pamela Dube is deputy vice-chancellor: student development and support at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.