The whole student

25 April 2005

Dealing in human currency: Moonira Khan, executive director, Student Development and Services Department.

When Moonira Khan worked as a nurse in the neonatal intensive-care unit at Groote Schuur Hospital some years ago, she learned to listen intuitively.

"The experience sharpened my perceptive skills as I learned to interpret the nuances of babies' cries."

These listening skills have stood the new executive director of the Student Development and Services Department in good stead. They will be especially important tools in her new job where she has a direct client base of just over 20 000 students.

Her passage from hands-on nursing to community outreach and development work, and later to human resources development in the Western Cape's health department (she was appointed director in 1995), has given her a handy array of skills to manage this diverse and large group.

When the UCT post was advertised it was her husband, Gabriel Urgoiti, who remarked: "Here's a job with an interesting challenge."

And Khan has never been shy of challenges.

"By then I was getting restless [in the health sector], needing a change. But I was choosy; I wanted something development-orientated."

It was the combination in the job portfolio of student governance and development that decided her.

In her far corner office on the 7th floor of the SDSD building, with its panoramic backdrop, Khan talks of the students as the university's key currency.

"They have a significant monetary value. If we don't offer them the programmes that will qualify them for the job market, we'll have a flight of currency. As such, we have to be responsive to our external environment."

The external environment will also shape how UCT prepares its students for the job market, so that each can compete in South Africa - and the world.

Her job is also about exposing students to the complexities of our new democracy. The recent shake-up in higher education has created a "vibrant and challenging" environment, she says.

"It demands some tough choices: what universities like UCT will keep as part of their cultural and academic traditions and what they will change and discard."

It has meant changing traditional academic programmes, incorporating those elements that will conscientise students, alerting them to the social and political realities in the world beyond UCT's ivy-clad walls. The curriculum, for one, as well as the development of the whole student, should be seen in the context of that change.

"We want to ignite a flame in students that promotes engagement with the broader issues facing our society, poverty and unemployment among others, so that their involvement in life after UCT will add value to the nation. Their preparation in academic life and their personal growth should make our students sought-after in the market place," she adds. "Once our students leave UCT they should be able to engage with society on all levels."

While society's needs may be furthest from the mind of a first-year lounging on Jammie steps, Khan is aware that the "currency" she talks of is also young and malleable.

"We need to guide, mentor and support the students and all our services must be geared to this end, from orientation and counselling to training and development in life skills. We're mindful of the needs of the whole student."

While her portfolio is packed, there are some changes she would like to explore, in consultation with the student body. She believes the Student Representative Council has too short a term of office, for example. The office bearers need more time to develop in their student governance roles, more time to actualise their leadership qualities.

At the mention of the word "leadership", Khan lights up.

"I'd like to have a leadership development strategy in place for students, one that adds to the present offerings, but which also takes the best from the private, public and education sectors in providing students with useful skills: running a meeting, writing minutes, developing a policy framework or communication strategy and managing a project - generic skills that will help them in their personal lives and in the world of work."

Khan has a full programme of residence visits and meetings with various stakeholders, including her own staff, many of whom are over-stretched. There is also the PhD she is working on (public administration and development management) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

And though she has plans to develop every facet of UCT's human currency, there is one imperative that stands out.

"In the end we'd like them to leave with what they came for."

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