Financial support is not enough in itself to meet the needs of disadvantaged and disenfranchised students, a Times Higher Education summit has heard.
University of Cape Townn (UCT) vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng said that students’ sense of belonging was ultimately more important than money in healing rifts triggered by deep-seated resentment.
Professor Phakeng said that her institution had found itself at the epicentre of South Africa’s “#FeesMustFall” protests, when students demanded free tuition, even though the university offered “arguably the best student financial support in the country”.
“While financial support is important, it is not sufficient for transformation,” she told the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Summit, hosted by City University of Hong Kong. “It is how people are treated and made to feel in the institution that matters.
“The same students who were offered support argued that the university culture continued to marginalise them, treating them like they are receiving a favour and so they must be grateful, assimilate, graduate and get out.
“That is what created the resentment and anger, and thus violent protests.”
Reflecting on her first year at the helm of UCT, Professor Phakeng recounted episodes not unlike the protests currently embroiling Hong Kong.
She said that before her tenure, the university had experienced three years of upheaval over issues such as fees, the “decolonising” of science and legacies of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
“Artwork, facilities and vehicles were burnt,” she said. “A few hundred protestors were able to shut down our campuses by setting off fire alarms, throwing sewage into buildings and either intimidating or recruiting others.”
Professor Phakeng said that the university had come close to experiencing student occupations under her leadership. “But that didn’t happen because my team and I have developed a practice of sitting with the students and hearing them out.
“We don’t always agree with them. But what they see is a vice-chancellor sitting with them – not a know-it-all – sometimes sitting on the floor for hours, listening.”
South Africa has an enduring tradition of “schoolmaster or even police-style leadership”, Professor Phakeng said. “But we are not teaching children or delinquents. They’re young adults. They need to know we see them, hear them and respect them.”
She said that she had made a practice of engaging students on social media and “showing up” at student functions, residences and even dances without notice. “I have climbed Table Mountain with students and taken a turn around the dance floor with them.
“I have climbed Table Mountain with students and taken a turn around the dance floor with them.”
“It is informal and perhaps as close as it can get to being equal. I go where the students are, online or in person. I get to know how the ground feels before it gets violent.”
Professor Phakeng also decided to eschew a traditional inauguration ceremony as a “colonial” hangover. “We used the money we were going to spend on an inauguration to clear the debt of 100 graduands who otherwise would not have been able to graduate because of fee debt.
“With so much student need, it did not make sense to me to pay for a separate, expensive celebration,” she said, adding that “it is not just students who need to feel heard”.
She said that she had organised “safe space” discussions to address the concerns that members of the university’s “elderly, sometimes conservative, mostly white and male” College of Fellows harboured over the “decolonisation” agenda.
Professor Phakeng also met gardeners and cleaners – the first such get-together in the university’s history – to hear their demands for more money. “[I told] them, if we work together on the vision… and we can save money, then you can have an increase.
“The issue was saying to them, the university is yours. You need to have an input into its future.”
Professor Phakeng said that she had not planned to become vice-chancellor. A colleague who persuaded her to accept the role, a former dean of health sciences, had died barely a month later. “He came under constant attack because of the leadership position he held during the protests,” she said. “[His] death brought home how much the protests had destroyed relationships across campus.”
Professor Phakeng herself had “sacrificed my privacy” and suffered a campaign to discredit her, including claims that she had faked her PhD. And her role had exposed her to emotional extremes, such as the day she had to inform parents of a student’s suicide shortly before celebrating with a professor who had won a top award.
“I like to connect with people,” she told the summit. “That moving between emotions – very high, very low – that’s something I wasn’t prepared for.”