Lives should also change education, Mamokgethi Phakeng submits

Published On: 28 October 2021|

Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town, was the second panellist in the session titled Student-Centred Universities at the recent 2nd Higher Education Conference. She raised points that she said were a provocation to the delegates, to drive student-centredness in universities.

Her core message was “Whilst it is true that education can change lives, as we say [mostly] when we talk to poor students, we need to consider how lives should also change education.”

By way of introduction, she reiterated that, if anything, the Fallist movements had proven that if the higher education sector was reluctant to highlight areas of inequality in the system, students would. Professor Phakeng said this was because those inequalities feed to students’ very identities, the mental health issues they face, regardless of how smart they could be.

“A new university student of today feels at a disadvantage from the moment they come to campus. Too often, their first impression of university underlines their status as members of a disadvantaged group.

“Widening access to higher education has been the focus of us here at the University of Cape Town for decades,” she said. “However, as the years of recent protests demonstrated, gaining university admission is not [real] transformation.”

What black staff and students communicated to executives nationally was that they needed to feel that the university also belonged to them. Particularly at UCT, she said students and staff were clear that they were not at UCT to assimilate into a historically white, male, western thinking culture. “They need to feel at home in the institution.”

She said this realisation required the university to make essential changes in its institutional culture.

Professor Phakeng (above) said as they began initiating those changes, one of the results they witnessed before CoViD-19 was that white students were no longer the only ones occupying front rows in lecture halls, as before. Black students were beginning to understand that they co-owned the space in the institution. So were black staff members.

“Talking with these students and colleagues and learning about their hopes for higher education made me realise that, as a sector, we need to broaden our aspirations. We also need to rethink how we interface with students in other ways, including in our admission practices.”

Universities treat students like trash

Expounding on the point above, Professor Phakeng narrated a story of an established business executive who was having a hard time getting his queries resolved by an institution he intended to enrol at, for a postgraduate certificate. In a conversation with her, this former CEO of a nationwide service provider shared that he wanted to run for Student Representative Council (SRC) presidency.

Stunned by his remarks, she asked what had informed that ambition. He said, “Universities do not know how to treat students… You treat students like trash.”

She said he described months of correspondence it had taken between him and the university administration department, to get a refund that was rightfully due to him.

“As an A-plus business executive with a lot of money and decades of experience in customer and stakeholder relations, he understood the importance of building respect with the people a business sector serves,” she said, highlighting that universities often forget to think that way.

“If an educated person, widely respected business executive with all his resources battles to get a university to listen to him, how do you expect our students to feel about us,” she asked.

She implored her colleagues in the sector to question the assumptions they have towards students.

How prepared are universities to teach and assess working-class students?

Professor Phakeng said institutions assume that students from the low socio-economic class are underprepared for university because of poor schooling and lack of resources. She said these assumptions [may] have some validity, but she often wonders if it is not also possible that the university is underprepared to teach and assess working-class students.

“We seem to be better prepared as universities to admit and serve middle-class students, and we need to critique that.”

She submitted that the under-preparedness or unpreparedness many students experience has more to do with culture than intellect. Amongst other factors, she said it had to do with traumatic home environments many students come from because of poverty. She counted the effects of HIV/Aids or other infectious diseases on their families and communities, unemployment, and the restrictions that apartheid placed on their parents and grandparents. Professor Phakeng included language as another barrier for many of the students that struggle in the university.

“Across the South African universities, success tends to be either racialised or confined to a particular socio-economic class.”

She said for her that indicated a built-in middle-class prejudice on the part of the higher education sector. Moreover, she alluded to an expectation that the students will transform by assimilating into a black version of the middle-class western thinking male graduates that have dominated graduation ceremonies over centuries.

“We often talk about how education changes lives as if education is benign, innocent, and free of prejudice. I propose, instead, that lives should also change education. We need to consider the political purposes that are assigned to education — what is taught to students and how it is taught.”

Universities hardly accept responsibility for student failure

“One example of how education is political is the belief that the dropouts are always to blame,” she said.

With this observation, Professor Phakeng said, often when a matriculant enters university without the necessary mathematics preparation needed for a first-year science programme, universities blame the high school and the public education system. But when a student that came through with distinctions fails a first-year university course, they are held responsible.

Her point was that universities never take any responsibility. She acknowledged that it was impossible to be accountable for all the catastrophes in the sector. “But I am saying, why is it that we, as academics, feel that it is okay to expect teachers to take responsibility when their matriculants fail, but not so much of us, as universities,” she asked.

She urged attendees to consider how many students drop out of university because they do not see the world in the way they are taught. Professor Phakeng was reminding everyone that dropouts, for the most part, are from marginalised groups.

The UCT principal said she often wondered whether there was a possibility that some students dropped out of universities upon refusal to read the world, presented in an unrelatable manner to their livelihoods by the university system.

How prepared are universities for diversity?

She asked the following questions:

  • How much of our underrepresented groups, or marginalised groups’ values are embedded in the education we present to them?
  • Do we even know what their values are?
  • Are we humble enough as a sector, and as institutions, to prepare ourselves for diversity?

“This needs to be part of our sector’s commitment to social responsiveness, inclusion, and diversity… means seeking to include all kinds of viewpoints across all kinds of borders – race, gender, sexuality, nationality, language, culture.”

She accentuated that transformation requires a commitment at all institutional levels, including executive decisions across the university.

In conclusion, Professor Phakeng said, in reference to Africa being the world’s youngest continent, “our students and graduates have the potential to serve the world with African innovation,” she said.

“By re-examining our relations with students, we are not only protecting our core assets as a higher education sector.”

She said this could unlock fresh approaches that would not only transform the sector but, a wider society, even extending to the world at large.

“This is true leadership that can boost not only the academics sector in South Africa but also our global standing as a country and a continent,” she said.

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted by Universities South Africa.