EMS cements massive transformative purpose, offers case study

12 November 2021 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 9 min.
The Centre for Extra-Mural Studies team (from left, back) Bronwyn Geldenhuys, Dr Arlene Bowers and Zuleiga Adam. (Front) Fezile Kama and Dr Medee Rall.
The Centre for Extra-Mural Studies team (from left, back) Bronwyn Geldenhuys, Dr Arlene Bowers and Zuleiga Adam. (Front) Fezile Kama and Dr Medee Rall.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (EMS) has shown how powerful a creative design-thinking process can be in identifying and unleashing massive transformative purpose (MTP) in support of UCT’s Vision 2030.

As a result, EMS, which hosts the Summer School, has been regenerated with carefully curated offerings that are now attracting a new, younger generation across many different local and international communities – from Khayelitsha to Tasmania.

But it was the disruption of COVID-19 that presented the crucible of change. On the back of dwindling Summer School audiences – who were mostly elite, white and older – capped by funding and transformation issues, the move to the Development and Alumni Department (DAD) and the launch of Vision 2030, the centre found itself at a crossroads.

It was an opportunity to reimagine their purpose, said EMS director, Dr Medeé Rall.

The centre engaged Abbas Jamie and Zoe Palmer from the UCT’s Futures Think Tank, established by the VC in September 2019, to run a strategy workshop with them.

“It forced us to ask the questions: Why does EMS exist and how can we support Vision 2030?” said Dr Rall.

Shape the future

Jamie helped them curate the space to think about a long-term strategy and to empower them to say: “We can shape the future.”

“We took Medee and her team through a number of workshops and through that process they came up with their own MTP,” he said. “This has realigned the centre with UCT’s Vision 2030 and its mandate to unleash human potential for a fair and just society.

“It allowed EMS to crystallise things and gave the team direction.”


“We went big with webinars and online courses.”

One of the building blocks of innovation is creative thinking … as much as it’s a collective journey, it is also an individual one, with every team member contributing and identifying the role they can play.

Guided by their MTP, the centre has since created new courses and attracted new audiences (thanks also to DAD’s 77 000 alumni database which they’re now able to tap into) on new platforms. Last year the team delivered 20 webinars on a range of topics.

“We went big with webinars and online courses, including an art course, which were hugely successful. We did Summer and Winter schools online.”

The team has also embraced new partnerships with organisations that reflect their MTP, such as Equal Education and the Tshisimani Centre. They plan to live stream Summer School to UCT’s Graduate School of Business’s Philippi Hub as well other resource-poor communities.

Thanks to its online platform, Summer School audiences have grown from 25% of UCT alumni to 53%; 1 000 participants, more than half, new to the event. The team will continue developing sustainable programmes for a broad audience anywhere in the world who value lifelong learning, said Rall.

Crowning development

An offshoot of their MTP process, EMS also launched a webinar series on futures and design thinking with Clem Sunter, Dr Fuad Udemans and Richard Perez of UCT’s Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking (d-school).

But the crowning development is the launch of the first-of-its-kind, certified, online postgraduate Applied Complexity Science course, introduced in September. Designed and convened by Dr Udemans, the course teaches integrated systems sciences and uses innovative teaching and learning methodologies.

Two Department of Public Works cohorts have started the course, which will be made public in January 2022.

“It’s potentially something that EMS can take global,” said Jamie.

Of the decision to host this course in the centre, Rall said, “It fits our focus and strategic reorientation.”

EMS is also exploring opportunities for courses that have continuing professional development (CPD) points, supporting learning activities professionals engage in to develop their skills.


“The process has enabled us to believe in the work we do and understand the value of lifelong learning.”

“What’s happened is that with the energy that’s come out of the MTP process and the workshops with Abbas, we’ve begun to look for synergies everywhere: whether in the online space via university book launches or tapping expertise,” said Rall.

The MTP process has asked the EMS team to imagine the world once their MTP has been achieved. This has also cemented a re-energised team around that vision – and their own potential too. This is a vital part of the process, said Jamie.

“We’ve got this vision, this North Star we’re moving towards, but people need to take ownership of how they unleash themselves.”

Rall added, “The process has enabled us to believe in the work we do and understand the value of lifelong learning and making the university a resource for everyone.”

Rall’s team has been equally upbeat about the process.

Administrative officer Fezile Kama, who has been with UCT for 15 years, 11 of those with EMS, said, “The workshop with Abbas was very good and useful. It came at the right time when we were not sure about our future as a unit. It helped us focus and made us confident.

“After the workshop we felt energised and determined to do more to save our unit from closure. I feel more determined and focused on the future and it did wonders for me personally and professionally.”

Colleague Dr Zuleiga Adams, a senior education specialist, added, “The process enabled us, after a long period of confusion and uncertainty, to clarify for ourselves as a team why we exist and where we are heading. It also provided a strong foundation for us to negotiate changing circumstances that we might face in the future (as in the COVID-19 pandemic). Most important is the welding together of the team around a common understanding of our purpose.”

Departmental manager, Arlene Bowers, also welcomed the chance to redefine their purpose. “Being part of the process has enabled us as a team to rethink our purpose and what EMS and Summer School are all about, what it could mean to a broader community, but more importantly, where we are heading into the future with our programme.”


Other initiatives have also boosted EMS’s new direction. Alumnus Jonathan Yach has come on board as chair of the marketing committee the centre established in August/September. Yach is working closely with the team to help them envision creative ways of monetising Summer School as well as giving business advice.

Yach is especially keen on EMS’s open-learning mandate.

“Everyone can learn something new, relevant and interesting, anywhere; hence ‘education everywhere’.”

The team has also drawn from the experience and insights of Dr James Lappeman, the head of projects at the UCT Liberty Institute of Strategic Marketing, who is also part of the EMS marketing committee.


“The EMS journey has been a fantastic manifestation of how a unit at UCT has grabbed the opportunity to say: This is how we are going to unleash ourselves.”

“South Africa continues to change significantly as the country moves through stages of post-colonial development,” said Dr Lappeman. “We are proud of how the school is evolving in form and functionality to be a more inclusive space for lifelong learning.”

Creating a Summer School legacy is important, said Rall.

“We’re coming up for the 72nd Summer School in January. I’d like it to see another 70 years. Once I’ve retired, I’ll continue to attend Summer School, which I’ve done since my student days at UCT. I’d also like to see the 100UP learners [a UCT Schools Development Unit project] that we work with [participating]. I’d like to see the new generation that we’ve seen in the online space; a diverse new generation of lifelong learners.”

Jamie is full of praise for the way the EMS team has run with the process.

“The EMS journey has been a fantastic manifestation of how a unit at UCT has grabbed the opportunity to say: This is how we are going to unleash ourselves while supporting Vision 2030.”

The challenge now is to get all of UCT involved in the MTP process as Vision 2030 beds down, asking “Why?” before asking “How?”

“This is the point of Vision 2030 and the concept that says, if you are not shaping the future, someone else will shape it for you,” Jamie concluded.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.