Health Sciences task team to prioritise student issues

13 June 2017 | Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Supplied by UCT Faculty of Health Sciences.
Robust engagement between students and staff of UCT’s faculty of Health Sciences last year resulted in not only the faculty-wide march to Bremner building in 2016, pictured here, but also a task team that will ensure that students’ concerns and demands are heard.
Robust engagement between students and staff of UCT’s faculty of Health Sciences last year resulted in not only the faculty-wide march to Bremner building in 2016, pictured here, but also a task team that will ensure that students’ concerns and demands are heard.

Frank discussions last October between students and staff in UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences have birthed a new Undergraduate Oversight Task Team (UOTT), a semi-autonomous body created to ensure that students’ concerns are taken seriously and acted upon by leadership.

“Students from first year to final year from different degree programmes formed a collective called #OccupyFHS and compiled a set of demands that addressed various systemic issues and micro-aggressions that still exist in the faculty,” explained Peace Francis, chair of the Health Sciences Student Council and a member of the ad hoc task team responsible for establishing the UOTT.

That ad hoc task team consisted of students and academics, which is emblematic of the kind of broad representation the UOTT itself aims to espouse.

“We wanted to make sure that the process was consultative, inclusive, democratic and transparent. The goal was to have a UOTT that was both diverse and as representative as possible,” said Professor Ntobeko Ntusi, head of the Department of Medicine, who was charged with making sure the UOTT became a reality, pronto.

“So we started from the premise that everybody had something important to contribute, and all of those different views were treated much the same,” Ntusi added. “There was no dominant voice even though you had heads of department and very young medical students. Everybody had an opinion that counted just as much, giving a lot of validity to the process.”

After weeks of intense consultation and debate in the faculty – the ad hoc task team was meeting weekly to keep the ball rolling – the UOTT is up and running. Its five members comprise both students and staff members. While the task team works closely with the deanery, it reports to the faculty board, giving it some degree of autonomy, said Ntusi.

That independence and broad representation is crucial if it is to “provide oversight” of how students’ demands are met and to “work very closely with the deanery to make sure that the responses are appropriate and, where they deem it necessary, to facilitate the establishment of working groups”, said Ntusi.

“I think it’s been a wonderful model in that the very prompt response from the faculty [to students’ call for such a body] indicates the seriousness with which the faculty took the demands of the students as well as the swiftness with which it acted to address many of the issues,” he added.

“I think also it is a great model to show you can take staff members and students who apparently come from different backgrounds and get them to sit around the table and get them to work towards a common goal.

“There was a lot of anxiety and trepidation given the events of last year, and people weren’t sure how the process was going to unfold,” Ntusi remarked. “They have now been meeting and forming working groups.”

No punches were pulled

One of the things that made establishing the task team a success was that the conversations were very “authentic”, said Ntusi.

“People didn’t pull punches, but the conversations were conducted with great respect and humility,” he related. “In a way, it demonstrated how one can provide what the students are calling for, which is the flattening of the hierarchical structures that occur at the university levels in terms of how the students engage with systems and people, but still having some structure around which you can build your conversations and discussions.”

Ntusi doesn’t think that this is a revolutionary idea.

“Those thoughts go back 300 years,” he said.

“Wilhelm von Humboldt was a German philosopher who advocated very strongly for an open university where debate could be robust and there was freedom of academic thinking and the learning was really premised on discovery rather than force-feeding ideas.”

“I’m not an anarchist,” Ntusi disclaims. “I don’t think there shouldn’t be structure to how organisations function.”

But there needs to be a realisation of the value that people “around the table” bring to the discussion, he added. There needs to be recognition of the value of people’s lived experience, and of the difference in experience “based on our backgrounds, our leanings, our political ideology”.

UOTT to keep faculty true to its promises

Francis said that the level of engagement between students and staff that led to the UOTT was unprecedented. Moreover, such dialogue was necessary to maintain momentum once the media’s temporary fixation with protest action dissipated.

“Oftentimes, once all the media attention has been redirected and classes have begun again, the promises and agreements made during protest times are forgotten and it was important that this did not happen,” Francis added.

“When we, the students, presented these demands to the faculty last year, we did not just want the faculty to say ‘yes’ to appease us but also called for a how, a who and a when.”

This is where the UOTT comes into play, said Francis.

“This task team is a group of people who will make it their job to ensure that the student demands result in real change and are fulfilled at an appropriate level,” Francis reiterated.

Already, the robust debate has sparked faculty-wide discussions about one particularly complex issue.

“One demand made by the students”, reminded Ntusi, “was the decolonisation of the education system and ‘our pedagogical approaches’.

“What became very apparent was that the word ‘decoloniality’ was very politically impregnated and meant very different things to different people. So the faculty has approached the university leadership and the university’s Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) to say that they would like to see how we can establish a process of decoloniality apropos medical education. We are now the first faculty in the university to be setting up our own CCWG that will specifically examine the question of decolonised medical education.

“The faculty will use a similar process as we did when setting up the UOTT to come up with a working group to drive the process of decoloniality in medical education and curricula.”

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