Afrocentric, inclusive, socially relevant academic 'evolution' at the University of Cape Town

19 January 2017 | Story by Newsroom
​​​​​​​Recent conservation biology programme graduates (from left): Hermenegildo Matimele, Mozambique; Wataru Tokura, Japan; current CB academic coordinator Dr Susan Cunningham; Angela Ferguson, Zimbabwe; Jennifer Angoh, Mauritius; Julia van Velden, South Africa; Elke Visser, South Africa; and Jessleena Suri, India.
​​​​​​​Recent conservation biology programme graduates (from left): Hermenegildo Matimele, Mozambique; Wataru Tokura, Japan; current CB academic coordinator Dr Susan Cunningham; Angela Ferguson, Zimbabwe; Jennifer Angoh, Mauritius; Julia van Velden, South Africa; Elke Visser, South Africa; and Jessleena Suri, India.

Many universities worldwide are in turmoil and, worse still, in crisis. Sadly, South African universities fall into the latter situation. Only the most reactionary cling to the Eurocentric structure of universities dominated by 'racially' privileged patriarchs and divided into myopic academic departments dedicated to intellectual pursuit disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. At the other end of the ideological spectrum are Afrocentric 'decolonialists' who demand replacement (destruction?) of an archaic, racist/sexist, irrelevant, exclusionary and elitist structure.

This outcry makes certain sense to, and fuels the passions of, large numbers of what Frantz Fanon considered as educationally 'disabled' university students desperately in need of high-quality education and financially viable and 'meaningful' careers.

Despite these calls for Afrocentric, academically/demographically inclusive and socio-economically relevant transformation at South African universities, there a few concrete examples of success stories. What is needed to produce them is “academic synergy”. To illustrate how this can be done, I describe the genesis and development of University of Cape Town's MSc programme in conservation biology within one of its archetypal, 'Ivory Tower' structures, the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology (The “Fitztitute”) – my academic 'home' for more than 40 years.

A major consequence of this academic adaptation was the subsequent recognition of the Fitztitute as one of the handful of South Africa's Department of Science and Technology / National Science Foundation's Centres of Excellence and the creation of an endowed chair dedicated to conservation biology. It has also attracted significant funding from overseas through the world-renowned, US-based John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation. At the same time, the Fitztitute has achieved and retained status as one of the world's three top centres of research on avian biology. Yes, you can have your academic 'cake' and eat it too!

In the beginning

In 1990/91, after consultation with current and past postgrad students, a range of colleagues and end-users / potential employers, the Fitztitute developed a new, one-year, MBA-like, coursework/research MSc programme in conservation biology (the CB course).

The aims of the CB course are to produce graduates with a broad understanding of conservation challenges and to provide them with the scientific background and tools to be able to analyse and solve practical, conservation-related problems. Its focus is on the long-term preservation of biodiversity and more immediate human beneficiation.

To do this, the Fitztitute has aggressively recruited students from a broad spectrum of humanity to cater for and exploit their knowledge (eg from currently employed conservationists) and passion (eg from recent BSc honours graduates). From its beginnings, administrators of the course have striven to attract 'black' and female students from South Africa, Africa and elsewhere globally. CB class size ranges from 12 to 15, with South Africans occupying half of the places and the remainder shared between students from elsewhere in Africa and further afield. This mix of humanity has been critical to the CB course's success.

Academic structure

The CB course is divided into two major components. First, there is an intensive programme of interactive, 'taught', interlinked modules spanning just over five months and run by carefully selected experts from within and outside of UCT. This is followed by a six-month research project aimed at producing a peer-reviewed scientific publication. The CB course has an Afrocentric, inclusive, holistic approach, encouraging problem-solving through exposing its students to a variety of disciplines/topics: philosophy/ethics, evolutionary biology, genetics, ecology, population/community/landscape/invasive/restoration biology, climate change, ecological-statistics/mathematical-modelling, conservation economics and community conservation.

Emphasis is also placed on developing oral, written and IT communication skills. This broad approach to postgraduate education produces graduates who compete successfully in the job market and go on to make a difference in the field. Although emphasis is given to solving conservation challenges in an African context, students are provided with a broad-based education that will stand them in good stead throughout the world.

Delivering the goods

During its 24-year history, the CB course has had a high Darwinian academic 'fitness'. More than 80 percent of the nearly 300 graduates to date have found relevant employment and published approximately 130 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Thus, in cold financial terms, the CB course more than earns its keep through the generation of government subsidies for published papers and graduated students.

In terms of government demographics, 25 percent of CB graduates so far have been 'black' and 52 percent female. They hail from 43 countries, 23 African. Some of the noteworthy graduates found careers as: Deputy Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas; Programme Co-ordinator of Nature Conservation & Game Ranch Management, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University; Head of the Biodiversity Network Unit, WWF South Africa; Chief Director of Conservation Gardens & Tourism, South African National Biodiversity Institute; Director of the Natal Museum; Professor/Curator of Birds, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley; senior lecturer in geography, University of Stellenbosch; Director and Coordinator of Invasive Species, Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux International; and Director of BirdLife Botswana.

Here is a comment from a current CB student, Elelwani Nenzhelele, who came to us from the University of Venda. Her research project is being supervised by Professor Timm Hoffman of the Plant Conservation Institution at UCT and Simon Todd, an ecologist at the CSIR, who himself was a CB student 20 years ago.

“It is important because we learn a lot from each other more than we did in the class. We learn from each other's experiences and knowledge about conservation issues, culture and traditions from all the people of different backgrounds. It is so nice to be in a diverse class because as much as you think you are different, at the end of the day we are the same HUMANS and our common goal is to make a world a better place.”

Indeed, several pairs of CB course graduates fell in love, married and had families! If that's not a measure of success, we don't know what is.

Emeritus Professor Tim Crowe

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