The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) incoming vice-chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng, has admitted that she will need to draw on her deep love of mathematics to tackle a number of challenges over the coming months.
In an article posted on the University’s website, Phakeng indicated that UCT is under pressure from all sides in the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall protests, which began in 2015 as a campaign to remove the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus.
These protests led rapidly to a wider movement to “decolonise” education and make tertiary institutions more accessible to students from poor households.
She noted that this instability led to an unprecedented exodus of top academics, and a sharp decline in revenue-generating foreign students.
Phakeng added that there is a lull in student protests, thanks to former president Jacob Zuma’s announcement of free higher education for students from poor and working class households. However she expects some push-back next semester, when UCT considers its fee increases for 2019.
“There is anger and impatience across the country, as (people) witness the fact that in our country the only way you get heard is if you destroy.
“We see that over and over again. That is why in my leadership style, I try to listen, to hear people from where they come from, and not to come with a mindset that says ‘you are this or that’,” she said.
Zuma’s promise of free undergraduate education has created a headache for universities who now need to find ways to support students at postgraduate level. More black researchers are desperately needed, but UCT does not yet have a deal for them, said Phakeng.
Phakeng added that she is also grappling with a postgraduate brain drain, and is trying to figure out how to persuade young talent to stay put, carve out a career in academia here in South Africa, and train the next generation of researchers.
“There’s something wrong with having our best researchers train outside the country. Brain circulation is important, but it’s not right to send our best to the West,” she said.
“At the same time, the institution has to find a way to retain its top academics.
“As we work on our institutional culture and move towards the transformation agenda, it will be my business to make sure academic staff know just how valuable they are,” said Phakeng.