Unisa, one of the mega universities in the world, has been challenged by anti-apartheid activist Dr Mamphela Ramphele to produce 21st century graduates and to use their “unique” position to address a poor education system that is failing so many children and young people in South Africa.
The founder of the Citizens Movement; and Chairperson for the Board of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and of Goldfields, yesterday delivered Unisa’s Founder’s Lecture on Educating and Training the 21st Century South African Citizen.
The 21st century, said Dr Ramphele, demands high standards of knowledge and competence from university graduates given the higher quality resource access they are assumed to have. “Countries that excel at preparing their young people for the opportunities of the 21st century thrive. Citizens of countries that succeed in harnessing ICT opportunities to nurture, promote and utilise talent will blossom.”
She said the poor quality education received by the majority of children is undermining South Africa’s ability to compete in the knowledge society of the 21st century. In addition, the poor quality of education is generating poverty and inequality and undermining the opportunity to build a nation united in its diversity.
Because the 21st century expects all citizens, professionals and public officials to be competent in the use of ICT, she questioned whether Unisa had embraced the ICT revolution to enhance equitable access to its academic offerings; and for improved teaching and learning. How is Unisa ensuring that the digital divide between those with access to ICT tools, and those without, is decreased; and are the teachers Unisa producing able to utilise ICT in their daily work life was also questioned.
Dr Ramphele said that every higher education institution should establish a niche area from which it can play a meaningful leadership role. Unisa, she said, should assume the role of champion and lobby government to make ICT for teaching and learning its priority. Unisa should facilitate partnerships between the government and private sector companies with competence in this area.
Unisa also has to also assume leadership on the continent. With its large African student and staff component, as well a number of significant centres of African related study; Unisa has a major opportunity to help South Africa come to terms with its African identity; and educate South Africans about xenophobia. “…The job that needs to be done is to go deeper than providing explanations for xenophobic behaviour and to start having the conversations about the steps we should take to overcome and get past these differences.”
Dr Ramphele said South Africa should leverage its membership of the Brics club of countries. She used Brazil as an example for leveraging its largest-economy status in the region to become the central node of Latin American human and intellectual capital with huge benefits for its own sustainable development needs. “The networks of post-graduate students and research collaboration have made Brazil a powerhouse. The relatively small investments in open access to post-graduate studies for students from the Latin American region are paying back huge dividends.”
Unisa, she said, should boldly strengthen its work in the terrain of civic education through turning the challenges of xenophobia, domestic violence, growing inequality and unemployment into opportunities to promote research and teaching. Such a focus might begin to stimulate sustained scholarship on alternative development models for post-colonial Africa.
Responding to Dr Ramphele’s challenges, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya, said the lecture made one realise that Unisa does indeed have a lot to offer, “but unfortunately, its consciousness levels may not necessarily be at a matured level to be at a point at which that which you have rightly spelt out here tonight, will be helping us to rise to the occasion. That is the biggest challenge.”
He said contextualising everything, all the challenges that Dr Ramphele presented, there is no doubt that pupils, students and teachers deserve better education, there can be no doubt that the county and continent deserves better.
He thanked Dr Ramphele for vocalising in a very honest and direct manner, many of the concerns that “we” have been too apathetic – even afraid to voice or acknowledge. “We can no longer be passive recipients of democracy. We need to ask ourselves, why are South Africans complacent, passive citizens? Why have we not been absolutely relentless in our demand for quality education?
“You raised your voice so that Unisa can educate for citizenship. We are committed to doing precisely that. As an institution firmly rooted in the communities it serves and fundamentally committed to being the African university in the service of humanity, we have undertaken to engage in wide ranging intellectual debate – without fear or favour,” he concluded.
Read Prof Makhanya’s welcome address to the Founder’s Lecture.
* Written by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester