Transformation at Health Sciences

Special Faculty Assembly

29 Jun 2015 - 10:45

A Special Faculty Assembly on Transformation in April, called for staff and students by the leadership of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is being followed up with initiatives aimed at accelerating transformation in the Faculty. These include an online platform to share views, Interim Dean Professor Gregory Hussey setting aside Wednesday afternoons to engage with staff and students, a Dean’s Transformation Advisory Board chaired by Prof Elelwani Ramugondo, and the establishment of a Transformation Fund. 

Commitment to transformation

These initiatives follow events linked to the recent #Rhodes must fall campaign at UCT, which highlighted the need for meaningful transformation. “The #Rhodes must fall campaign presented UCT and our Faculty with the opportunity to accelerate the process of re-engineering itself as fully responsive to its environment, to effect genuine transformation,” said Prof Gregory Hussey.

The Assembly aimed to create a constructive space for staff and students to voice their opinions and concerns regarding transformation in the Faculty, and to use the opportunity to engage in discussions on how the Faculty’s agenda could be fast-tracked. Prior to calling the Special Assembly, the Faculty leadership had reaffirmed its commitment to transformation in a statement on the #Rhodes must fall campaign. The statement recognised that the call for the removal of the statue was symbolic of a deeper issue - the need for transformation at UCT to be accelerated on all fronts; this had alienated black students and staff at the university, and was indicative of the country’s failure to achieve true democracy. Citing the definition of transformation adopted in the Faculty Charter on 9 May 2002, the statement acknowledged the Faculty’s slowness in implementing transformation. 

Constructive engagement

“We were very impressed with the constructive tone of engagement in the Special Faculty Assembly,” said Professor Hussey, reporting on the event. “We didn’t only hear people’s concerns, we heard constructive suggestions and comments for taking the transformation agenda forward.” Those who spoke painted a picture that echoed the sentiments of what prompted the campaign in March. 

“It was disturbing and sobering to hear that black students still experience subtle, and sometimes overt, racism and discrimination during their training, assessment, in class and social interactions,“ he recalls. Experiences include difficulties in adjusting to academia due to barriers such as language, stigmatisation and lack of support from some staff and students. 

Other barriers include the high cost of education in the Faculty, and the burden of debt faced by students who were either excluded or unable to complete their studies due to lack of finance. Criticism was also levelled at curricula which should encourage higher order thinking skills and an appreciation of the socio-economic context of health.

There were those who also asked what they could do to help black students and staff feel less alienated and devalued in the Faculty. The creation of spaces for continuous discussion was put forward to encourage inclusive dialogue so that students and staff, irrespective of their views, can speak up without fear of reproach or judgement. Additionally, these conversations should aim to foster and facilitate understanding, sensitivity and awareness of each other’s experiences, feelings and to dispel misgivings. 

Some of the recommendations included the need for a collective definition of transformation along with a concerted effort to mainstream the process; the establishment of a bridging course to assist students in acquiring the necessary skills to succeed; staff diversification, diversity training and a representative Faculty structure to monitor, drive and hold the Faculty accountable for transformation. More importantly, there was an overwhelming sense that professional health-care values such as empathy, self-reflection, professionalism and communication along with Ubuntu should be at the heart of the transformation process.

“…we are strongly committed to constructive engagement in an inclusive process to develop and implement interventions to fasttrack transformation,” confirms Professor Hussey.

Faculty leadership’s view of a transformed UCT is that of a student and staff body that reflects the demographics of the country’s population; its research and curriculum addressing collective heritage, environmental and developmental needs; and UCT’s institutional culture celebrating its rich history, diversity and talent in an affirming and inclusive manner, so as to accord dignity and respect to all staff and students.

Article by Jaquelyne Kwenda