UCT: No need to fear the curriculum review

Dianna M Yach says an excellent institution is one that actively contributes to social transformation and social justice

It’s our UCT, and we need to invest in its future

I write this piece as a proud alumna of UCT’s Faculty of Law. I happen to be Chair of the UCT Alumni Advisory Board, and I am also a donor to the University, but I am speaking strictly in my personal capacity, whilst acknowledging at the outset that I have a particular set of insights into UCT’s challenges and into the work that it is doing.

Having followed recent discussions about UCT in the media and elsewhere, I write this because I am of the view that as people with a vested interest in the future of the university, it’s the job of alumni and donors to join with staff and students and engage in a serious conversation, to make a contribution to helping the institution to move to the next level.

Critically, the university community needs to flesh out the idea of what transformation means and how we plan to achieve it.

For instance, having had some exposure to a curriculum review process at UCT, I want to immediately dispel the myth that transformation is related to a decrease in standards, or is somehow a move away from a commitment to excellence. On the contrary, an excellent institution is one that actively contributes to social transformation and social justice.

Curriculum review is not about dumbing down the curriculum, it’s in fact about raising standards, and producing research that solves local problems, where international partners acknowledge our path-breaking role, and our position as experts.

It’s time to move away from the idea of UCT as aiming to be a “little Oxford on the hill”, and realize that the goal is for UCT to be acknowledged as a knowledge producer, not a only a consumer, a proudly African University in South Africa, which shares knowledge with international partners and leads the way, rather than being colonized by international colleagues who have a tendency to use UCT as a springboard for their own research and academic needs. This requires innovative responses to teaching and learning, student support, staff support and development.

Knowledge isn’t only valid if it’s Eurocentric. We have to embrace a multiplicity of philosophical, pedagogical and disciplinary approaches so that we infuse the student experience with a broad range of insights. That is part of the excellence agenda. It’s about contributing our own thinking to the academic discourse, not just being passive recipients and reproducers of existing knowledge frameworks.

We achieve excellence and put UCT on the map by becoming global experts in a range of fields, from an unapologetically African vantage point. One example of how this is already happening is Kelly Chibale’s work on a single dose cure for malaria. Others are the Children’s Institute, which produces research that informs advocacy work into the rights of children, and the Knowledge Co-Op, which pairs UCT researchers with community organisations seeking solutions to inform interventions at community level. Most of these are (at least partially) alumni- and donor-funded projects.

The reality is that the critical mass “in the middle” at UCT is invested in grappling with a thoughtful, substantive, meaningful process of transformation. We need to stop focusing our attention exclusively on the actions and opinions of people at the extremes.

We need to help UCT move social justice issues from the margins to the mainstream. We must not allow ourselves to be trapped in the past. We need to consider future generations – what legacy do we want to leave our future leaders?

The point is that everyone needs to own their stake in the transformation process – staff, students, alumni and donors. It’s our UCT, and we have a vested interest in its continued excellence – in teaching, learning, research and community engagement. We need to get involved, and translate intention into action. It can’t be business as usual – this process involves an investment of time, money and resources in helping UCT to be even more excellent in the future.

Dianna M. Yach BA LLB (UCT) LLM (London)