University of Cape Town (UCT) alumnus Ashraf Conrad has been appointed director of the Institutional Planning Department (IPD) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Conrad took up the post on 1 September 2021.
After completing a master’s degree in social science (sociology) at UCT in 2001, Conrad joined the IPD as a planning officer, going on to become principal planning officer in 2008, a position he held until his most recent appointment. A higher education planning specialist, Conrad now brings a wealth of institutional experience to the task.
He spoke with UCT News about the critical role the unit plays in the life and functioning of the university and about his task, which he summarises as bringing “a strategic perspective to the university based on adding value through the focus on high‑level institutional priorities”.
Helen Swingler (HS): What is the role of the IPD within the university and where does its work add the most value?
Ashraf Conrad (AC): At a meta level, institutional planning can be seen as playing two closely interlinked roles. In relation to the first, the stewardship of the reputation of the university, this is expressed through academic planning that ensures that the qualifications that we offer are relevant, worthwhile and, crucially, recognised by statutory bodies. The reputation stewardship also exists in relation to our quality management systems and the excellence of our core functions of teaching and learning, research and social responsiveness. It relates to how we report on who we are and what we do, in a way that says that what we do has meaning. In terms of the quality of reporting that we do, internally and externally with rigour, that we are deliberate about our activities and we affirm that they conform to our own standards and are recognised locally and internationally.
While the stewardship of the reputation of the university can be thought of as backward‑looking, the second important role is about creating discomfort and facilitating growth and change.
“We understand that transformation isn’t just a “strategy”, but a moral imperative.”
In institutional planning we look inward and ask questions about who we are, our relevance, and whether we have remained relevant and then we ask how can we continue to be relevant in future.
In relation to the planning functions, our role is about doing environmental scanning; developing strategy; incorporating, monitoring and evaluating strategy and institutional research.
The twin foci of relevance, and growth and change, is where we ask ourselves the uncomfortable questions and where we understand that transformation isn’t just a “strategy”, but a moral imperative.
HS: How large is your department and how is it structured?
AC: The department is probably one of the smallest stand‑alone departments (by number) in the university. But it is such a niche and specialised area that it has a huge impact. There are currently only seven staff members (of a possible 12) and apart from the directorate, the department is arranged in the two main units: the Academic Planning and Quality Assurance unit and the Institutional Information Unit.
HS: What part of the job description as director lights your fire?
AC: What excites me most about the job is the opportunity to work in between the traditional areas of strength, and to help identify and develop new strengths. Because of the nature of the work that we do, the need to collaborate and build partnerships with different sectors of the university is crucial and allows the department’s work to really shine. I have been privileged to work with many dedicated and talented people and to learn from them, and hopefully to share some of the knowledge and experience that I have gained.
“I see Vision 2030 as the fuel that’s going to sustain the institutional planning department work over the next decade.”
HS: What excites you most about Vision 2030 and realising this within your department?
AC: In two very different ways, the department and the institution are in a very interesting space. I see Vision 2030 as the fuel that’s going to sustain the institutional planning department work over the next decade, and in the first phase of implementation, will require a lot of background work. For example, to develop graduates who will use their knowledge, skills and sense of responsibility to shape and to be at the service of society, we will first have to put in place the policies, infrastructure, and frameworks that will facilitates this; and this is the day‑to‑day work of the department.
HS: What are the biggest challenges?
AC: Coupled with the ever‑growing need for data analytics to drive decisions, among the challenges are the availability of more complex data and asking multi‑layered questions of the data. Two challenges are immediately apparent in this area: the need to simplify and make data more accessible, and visually accessible for interpretation, and the imperative to handle the data and analytics responsibly.
HS: You bring much experience to the job, including your years at UCT as a student. Does the latter play a part in how you are able to think about shaping UCT’s future?
AC: I do think we are shaped by our experiences and some are more formative than others. My years as a student are many years ago, but I still remember coming from very sheltered and structured schooling, to a large, exciting, intimidating, overwhelming and fascinating world of the university. It took me a while to adapt and I’m happy that there are now many more support systems to help students. But like the many people who have been here for a long time, I would like to remember that every year, we have thousands of new students coming into a new space and that the transition, for some, will be more overwhelming than exciting.
In relation to how my years as a student shaped my thinking, I often reflect that even until my final year of my master’s degree in sociology, I had no concept of the emerging importance of the university planning function and higher education as a field of study. I think now of our students in various disciplines and how we need to prepare them for a world of work that they might not even recognise when they get there. Therefore, we need to prepare them not only with the skills for operating in the world, but the attributes needed to adapt to the inevitable changes and challenges in society – and to contributing to improving society.
HS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AC: My appointment to the post of director is the result of not only hard work, but inspirational managers and supportive colleagues creating opportunities for enduring learning and growth, and lifelong friendships. I didn’t get here by myself, and I’d like to thank them all for being part of my appointment.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Please view the republishing articles page for more information.