Martin Hall on UCT's transformation work

18 August 2008

The committee set up by the Minister of Education to report on progress in transformation visited UCT in July, and met with three broad groups: the senior leadership, students and staff involved in transformation work.

The Minister set up the committee in response to the widely-publicised video shot by students at the University of the Free State. The following paragraphs summarise the UCT Executive's submission to the committee.

All universities discriminate in their admissions and employment practices on measures of students' aptitude for success and job applicants' qualifications, experience and potential. The more selective the university is, the more the discrimination, and the more the basis of discrimination to be challenged.

The combination of the Bill of Rights and the Higher Education Act requires us to discriminate fairly in admissions and to take account of past inequalities, in the context of considerable competition for places. This has resulted in extensive and continuing debate over appropriate admissions policies for UCT.

In the absence of reliable socio-economic data for all South African applicants, or a reasonable proxy for disadvantage (such as the still-incomplete classification of high schools by the Department of Education), UCT uses self-declaration of race as the proxy for the continuing effects of past inequality, and requires differing high school results for admissions and for the award of entrance scholarships.

We believe that, under present circumstances and with the resources available to us, our current admissions policy is both morally and legally defensible and the best way of meeting our legal and constitutional obligations.

But we also recognise that there is a risk of unfair discrimination and that our current admissions policy is unlikely to be sustainable. We urgently need to move to an admissions system that uses a measure of socio-economic status - ideally a reliable measure of overall household income - to meet the requirements for a differentiated admissions system in a highly unequal society.

Our Employment Equity Policy places an emphasis on diversity as an educational value, and that UCT's mission of being a university within Africa makes it appropriate and desirable to employ staff of other nationalities.

Have these policies and procedures succeeded in accelerating the transformation of the demographic profile of staff at UCT, and in removing unfair discrimination in employment practices?

While UCT is, generally, managing to meet the modest targets set in terms of the Employment Equity Act, about 40% of those employed are white, which is approximately four times the representation of whites in the South African population as a whole. While there are PASS departments and faculties that are exemplars of good practice, it is a reasonable conclusion that, as a whole, UCT has not yet moved away from seeing employment equity primarily as a compliance requirement, rather than as an opportunity for the advancement of diversity.

As with race, UCT seeks to achieve gender equity through its student admission and employment equity policies. In broad terms, gender parity has been achieved in undergraduate admissions, student retention and graduation rates, and progress is being made in specific programmes where women have been underrepresented.

However, we have been less successful in moving towards gender equity in staffing, where women are over-represented in junior staff positions and severely underrepresented in senior staff positions. The challenge is particularly acute when race and gender are combined: UCT has very few black woman professors or senior managers.

In addition to our continuing focus on unfair discrimination on the basis of race and gender, we are giving active attention to unfair discrimination against staff and students at UCT on grounds of disability, religious belief, sexual preference, xenophobia, language, and HIV status.

We have achieved varying degrees of success with these programmes, all of which can be considered works in progress.

Dealing with forms of discrimination that are unfair is a necessary part of transformation, but is not sufficient in itself to achieve the objectives of transformation.

"Institutional culture" is the combination of formal processes (such as student and staff support, the curriculum, teaching and learning, and research work), and the informal "climate" of the university - the ways in which people relate to one another on a day-by-day basis.

For many students, UCT's "institutional climate" is defined by residence life. UCT has gone to considerable efforts to promote integration in the residences and to enhance the quality of student life.

This focus is steered by the admissions policy for student housing and by the work of the wardens and student leadership. Less attention has been given to the needs of "day students" who live off campus. An important student-led initiative has been the opening of UCT's first "day house".

Events focusing on key issues of transformation and institutional culture are initiated by student leadership in the faculties and by the SRC. For example, in 2007 student societies organised "The Wall", an installation that focused attention on Palestine and resulted in vigorous exchanges of views between Jewish and Muslim students. UCT seeks to establish the main parameters of staff "institutional climate" through periodic institutional climate surveys. The overall impression of these surveys is of a divided community. There is evidence of intersecting fault lines: by race and gender, by academic rank and pay class, and between academic staff on the one hand, and support and professional staff on the other. UCT's primary responses to the outcomes of the Institutional Climate Surveys have been the Respect and Khuluma programmes. The Respect Programme has been a university-wide focus on the values of the right to individual dignity, concern for others and appreciation of diversity.

Khuluma is a series of workshops, each for about 20 participants, that focuses on racial stereotypes. Participants explore their own assumptions and experiences in an environment that confronts that which is usually left unsaid, encouraging and promoting a recognition of the significance of arbitrary and unfair stereotypes, and seeking to link personal awareness with organisational behaviour.

The programme has been offered in partnership with ProCorp, and more than 700 UCT staff have participated over the past two years. While the workshops are often traumatic, responses have been overwhelmingly positive.

The outcomes of the 2007 Institutional Climate Survey, as well as that which has been learned from the Khuluma and Respect programmes, is summarised in the latest Transformation Report to the UCT Council, and has been focused on as an Action Plan, following an open colloquium led by the Vice-Chancellor in February 2008.

This action plan has been directed to the Transformation Committees in each PASS department and faculty. Transformation Committees have been asked to identify three top priorities for positive change, and three most important negative findings to address, and to take these to faculty boards or full staff meetings for discussion and ratification.

Martin Hall
Deputy Vice-Chancellor
with responsibility for transformation

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