Focus on equity and success

26 Sep 2017 - 08:45

DVC for transformation Loretta Feris speaks about her nine months in the transformation portfolio in an address to the Faculty of Health Sciences.

DVC for transformation Loretta Feris speaks about her nine months in the transformation portfolio in an address to the Faculty of Health Sciences.

In an address to members of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Loretta Feris, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation, reflected on her nine months in the transformation portfolio and outlined her key focus areas for 2018.

It is difficult to attend to the broader, strategic imperatives of her portfolio while holding the campus together on a day-to-day basis, Feris mused.

But from such moments of difficulty comes great opportunity. And Feris hopes to capitalise on this.

“There is so much work to do that we almost need to start prioritising,” Feris began. During 2018, she therefore aims to focus on employment equity (in bringing together excellence and profile) and student success (taking into account the myriad factors that lead to it).

“What I am seeing is: We are not making the link between admissions and student success. There is a major gap.”

Feris emphasised the need for conversations, especially at a faculty level. These should take into account students’ financial and socio-psychological support, as well as the socio-psychological ramifications of financial inability to study.

 

“We seem to think that when we talk about employment equity we are not talking about excellence. Of course we are talking about the same thing.”

“I think it’s something that we never really needed to think about at UCT. UCT has very much been a university for middle-class students,” she explained.

UCT lecturers have never been in a position where they need to think about providing additional support. In the past, it went without saying that a student would be able to purchase a prescribed tax textbook for R800.

Now, there is a cohort of students that has difficulty finding a place to sleep, let alone pay for tuition, Feris said.

Students shoulder other burdens as well, she continued. Many students enter the university space with immense emotional wellness struggles. It is a yoke that students at each and every South African, and indeed, international university, seem to be struggling with.

“Also think about the fact that when our students come here, they are not just supporting themselves. They are supporting an extended family as well.”

Linking student success

“I think we are beginning to understand the fundamental link between curriculum and what informs the curriculum … and how we tie it to student success.”

Why are students demanding this, Feris prompted? More importantly, what would a decolonised curriculum mean for student success?

“So when students are saying to us, ‘We don’t want to be taught a curriculum that is, in essence, a curriculum that is uncritical of its colonial past’, what is the implication for us?”

Decolonisation remained uncharted territory until Rhodes Must Fall. “And I think some of us still don’t want to go there,” she said. “This is still a scary place for us.”

But if we automatically assume that a decolonised curriculum is an inferior curriculum, we are sending ourselves down a very difficult path, she said.

'Who teaches, matters.'

Feris’s second focus for 2018 is on employment equity.

UCT is aware of the importance of a staff cohort that is reflective of South Africa. “But I don’t know if we’ve really said it strongly enough, profoundly enough,” Feris emphasised.

“We seem to think that when we talk about employment equity we are not talking about excellence. Of course we are talking about the same thing.”

The work being done in the research portfolio is key for developing the academic pipeline, she noted. It focuses on opening up spaces for honours students to work toward their master’s and their PhD before walking into UCT’s classrooms as lecturers.

It is essential that this work is taken up at a faculty and departmental level.

Transformation work is everybody’s work, she said.

Profound isolation

Having been a lecturer for many years, Feris entered the transformation portfolio “having really experienced the kind of profound feelings of alienation that many black people talk about at UCT”.

Since stepping into the role, she has become increasingly concerned by the alienation felt by new staff members. It is particularly troubling given the work the university needs to do in the realm of employment equity.

 

“We need to mentor in the marginalised spaces.”

These are people who can move out of the university space quite easily, Feris noted. “They have a whole professional world out there that is looking to absorb them.”

UCT needs to do some creative and innovative thinking to attract and retain staff, while ensuring it builds the pipeline.

Feris challenged black staff, in particular, to think of ways to support each other.

“Because we’ve walked a particular path at the university. We get it. We understand it. So I think we also need to provide a space where we say to other young, newly appointed black staff: This is how I can support you.

“We need to mentor in the marginalised spaces.”

Beginning to look different

In the past, the university focused on changing the profile of its student body, Feris explained. To this end, it looked at great depth at admissions and adopted a somewhat controversial admissions policy.

“I do think we are beginning to see the great shifts in our student profile. This is beginning to feel like a South African university,” she said.

Feris felt this most profoundly during the 2017 mid-year graduation.

“I’ve been previously in the law faculty and there I haven’t really seen those great shifts,” she said. But this year’s graduation afforded Feris a bird’s-eye view of who is graduating, and from where. She noted how some faculties have changed quite dramatically.

In this moment, in the coming together of student success, Feris was able to imagine the institution UCT could be.

In those moments, they celebrated, in particular, the success of the students they had previously not included at UCT. “I see the celebration, in particular, of our African black PhD students,” she said.

“It also, for me, really underscored the fact that when your profile changes, your institutional culture changes.”

But this moment was at odds with the rest of the university, she said. It was not reflective of the work still needing to be done.

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