With the Fourth Industrial Revolution upon us, universities are facing the daunting task of re-evaluating their place and purpose in the world. With a strong focus on unleashing human potential and producing well-rounded graduates, the University of Cape Town (UCT) is in the process of developing its Vision 2030.
Firmly built upon Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s three pillars of transformation, excellence and sustainability, the new vision for the university is one that looks outward and asks the question: How can we make an impact?
“Enabling the unleashing of our staff and students’ potential is one of the main purposes of the university,” said Ashraf Conrad, the principal planning officer within UCT’s Institutional Planning Department.
“Part of the vision is to develop well-rounded, civically engaged, socially responsive persons with a keen interest in solving the world’s wicked problems.”
“So, part of the vision is to develop well-rounded, civically engaged, socially responsive persons with a keen interest in solving the world’s wicked problems.”
The notion of wicked problems is nearly five decades old. In terms of planning and policy, wicked problems are problems that are especially difficult to solve due to their complex and interconnected nature, as well as finding solutions within economic constraints and incomplete knowledge.
This focus has gained particular poignancy and importance as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic with unprecedented social, economic and medical repercussions.
A formidable task team
Conceptualising a future-focused vision of this nature for an institution steeped in colonial history and traditions is no mean feat. It has required the tireless engagement of a formidable task team.
Made up of four members of UCT’s executive, the team is led by Associate Professor Lis Lange, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Teaching and Learning, and Dr Reno Morar, UCT’s chief operating officer. Professor Loretta Feris, the DVC for Transformation, and Professor Sue Harrison, the DVC for Research and Internationalisation, act as co-chairs for various working groups.
The team has received ongoing support and invaluable input from UCT’s Futures Think Tank, led by Professor Alison Lewis, the dean of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, as well as Associate Professor Kosheek Sewchurran, the Executive MBA director at the UCT Graduate School of Business.
Finally, Conrad and his colleagues at the Institutional Planning Department have been key in facilitating discussions and engagements to support the VC’s mandate of developing Vision 2030 in broad consultation with a wide range of stakeholders.
Cascading decisions instead of goals
While producing excellent graduates has always been one of the university’s top priorities, the task team’s approach to developing Vision 2030 is entirely different from UCT’s previous strategic planning frameworks.
As Conrad pointed out, the current five-year plan – running from 2016 and concluding at the end of 2020 – was shaped in response to the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests, which sought to address UCT’s postcolonial context.
“The point of departure for Vision 2030 is very different,” he said. “It is very much more future focused and looks at what sort of impact the university can have going forward.”
Basing their methodology on Playing to Win: How strategy really works by AG Lafley and Roger L Martin, the team formulated a cascade of questions/choices to guide the vision, starting at an institutional level, which would then filter down to academic, and professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff.
“To complete the sentence, our point of departure for Vision 2030 is therefore to unleash human potential to create a fair and just society.”
Conrad used the following as an example of the cascade of choices formulated by the task team and their partners:
Massive transformative purpose
Using the language of the Futures Think Tank, the first question in the cascade can also be rephrased to ask: What is our massive transformative purpose?
In answer to this, the Vision 2030 task team adopted the notion of “Unleash” from the Future’s Think Tank.
“To complete the sentence, our point of departure for Vision 2030 is therefore to unleash human potential to create a fair and just society,” said Conrad.
With this purpose firmly established, the team was able to move on to the next level of the cascade, under which they formulated four main aspirations:
The team then identified four ways in which UCT aims to be distinctive in the coming decade, which includes solving Afrika’s problems.
The cascade then becomes more complex, as each of the bullet points under ‘We will be distinctive by’ has its own set of bullet points about what needs to be done and which systems need to be put in place in order to achieve these aspirations.
“The overwhelming feedback has been [that of] excitement with some nervousness.”
Separate cascades of choices have been formulated for the university’s core functions of teaching and learning, and research.
“There has been a lot of engagement with different groups of stakeholders around not only the institutional cascade but also the teaching and learning, and research cascades,” Conrad said. “The overwhelming feedback has been [that of] excitement with some nervousness. But definitely excitement for what we can collectively achieve with this vision.”
He added that one of the big challenges in the implementation of Vision 2030 – which will likely be divided into two five-year rollouts running from January 2021 to December 2025, followed by January 2026 to December 2030 – will be maintaining a balance between continuing to do the things that are being done well, while changing the things that aren’t necessarily working.
The COVID-19 effect
COVID-19 has brought a new set of challenges for the Vision 2030 task team.
Conrad mentioned that crucial VC roadshows had been planned, during which Professor Phakeng would have had the opportunity to present the documentation and work that has been done to various stakeholders in person.
Instead, members of the executive team had virtual engagement sessions with staff.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many issues of relevance to higher education that now cannot be ignored.”
Taking a positive view, however, Conrad added that the pandemic has also brought an unlikely measure of confirmation that UCT is on the right track with its vision.
From developing a world-class online learning space to producing research that is relevant to the Afrikan continent, the pandemic has brought many future aspirations into clearer focus.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many issues of relevance to higher education that now cannot be ignored – from research already being done in the health and natural sciences that needs to be accelerated, to the increased understanding that poverty and income inequality can only be mitigated by collaboration across many disciplines.”
*UCT’s choice to spell Afrika in this way is an invitation to reclaim Afrika’s agency and use it to validate the global character of the local in the 21st century.
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