Obama visit: Universities are key to guarding democracy and development, says Price

04 July 2013 | Story by Newsroom

Read the Vice-Chancellor's full speech here.

Barack Obama's visit to South Africa is rich in symbolism and this may be one reason he chose to speak at the University of Cape Town, Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price said in his address ahead of the US President's speech in Jameson Hall on Sunday, 30 June 2013.

Price began his talk by invoking the memory of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, who spoke on the same stage in 1966, at the invitation of UCT student leader Ian Robertson, during the darkest days of Apartheid.

But, Price said, Kennedy inspired his listeners to look beyond the government's actions. 'He reminded [activists in South Africa] ' and the idealistic students and faculty listening to him, that they were not alone, but part of a global movement that stood for, and fought for, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was an inspirational message.'

In the present day, former President Nelson Mandela provided his own brand of inspiration, Price said. He cited Madiba's 'ability to persuade us all to imagine a better future ' And it was the '˜Yes we can' campaign of Barack Obama that inspired a nation to elect the first African American president '“ and that won, too, the admiration of the citizens of Africa.'

Beyond the symbolism, Price argued, the university setting was also appropriate for Obama's message on promoting economic growth across Africa. Price said: 'There are many drivers of renewal and growth. Perhaps the most significant are education, innovation, and preparing the next generation of leaders, movers and shakers, teachers, thinkers, entrepreneurs. Universities make an absolutely indispensable contribution to all of this. Moreover, President Obama's particular emphasis on the future role of the youth speaks directly to the relevance of a university setting.'

Price said: 'Democracies create privileged spaces where critical analysis and debate can occur'“ one such space is the universities. It was in no small measure through the limited degree of autonomy of this university in 1966 '“ even as it was being restricted and pressured by the state to implement apartheid policies '“ that the protected space existed that could allow Senator Kennedy to be invited here at all; and that gave him a platform to speak truth to power. It seems particularly fitting that President Obama should choose a university setting to make his principal policy speech on Africa '“ it is recognition of the importance of the independence of universities, and their role in guarding democracy, their focus on the next generation, their contribution to providing human capital, their role in innovation, and their promoting development in the numerous ways they do.'

And UCT represents something more, Price said: 'It is a leading research university that offers the prospects for bilateral relations between Africa and the rest of the world that transcend the hierarchies and paternalism of North-South relations in the past. There are precious few research universities on the continent. In the Times Higher Education top 400 global universities (which focuses heavily on research as the basis for ranking), there are only four from Africa, north and south of the Sahara '“ and all four are in South Africa.'

Price said: 'The continent has made progress in expanding access to higher education '“ but over 15 years, numbers of students have increased three times more than funding '“ and as a result, the quality of their education is often jeopardised, and in particular, the university's research agenda takes a back seat.'

Price continued: 'The question may be asked '“ is this a priority in a developing, low- or middle-income country? My answer is an unequivocal '˜yes'. The need for research expertise, nurtured by research-strong universities, is global, and applies equally to developing and developed nations '“ even if there will be particular challenges of resource allocation in the case of developing nations.'

'Unless Africa wants to remain the consumers of other people's knowledge and innovation, the recipients of received wisdom with no critical capacity locally to interpret' unless we think all global technologies are locally appropriate and that we do not need the capacity to develop locally relevant solutions, African countries need to further their own research capacity. That capacity resides first and foremost in research universities. Not every university can or should be a research university '“ but every country needs at least one, and middle income countries, like South Africa, should support several.'

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