UWC’s success counts against it

A gift and a dilemma: this is how Tyrone Pretorius, the new vice-chancellor of University of the Western Cape (UWC), views the institution’s success in transforming itself into a first-class institution.

It is a gift for obvious reasons, particularly as “we’re the only historically disadvantaged institution now playing in the premier league”, Pretorius said when he sat down with the Mail & Guardian at a Sandton restaurant this week.

“Coming out of a deeply scarred past, founded as an ethnic institution under apartheid and built for failure, UWC has achieved remarkably. We’re one of the top seven universities in all of Africa in some of the ranking systems and we’re in the top 100 of Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] universities.

“UWC leads the country in many fields in terms of research. Out of an institution that was never meant to have science as matured and developed as it is now, we now have four A-rated scientists in space science and we lead the country in nanoscience and nanotechnology.”

The university, in Bellville in the Western Cape, is known for breaking ground where other historically disadvantaged black universities, such as the University of Zululand, the University of Venda, the University of Limpopo, the University of Fort Hare and the Walter Sisulu University, have lagged behind.

Half of UWC’s academic staff have doctorates, something else that sets it apart from its disadvantaged counterparts.

But, Pretorius said, the university’s success had created a dilemma in getting funding. At the end of last year, government created a special fund for historically disadvantaged universities, he said, which was implemented this year.

“UWC being better off actually poses a dilemma for us because our achievements place us among the top universities in South Africa.

“Our dilemma is, even though we have achieved that, we’re still historically disadvantaged. We still don’t have the reserves that other institutions have that are advantaged.”

Other disadvantaged universities saw UWC as having succeeded and, therefore, did not need special funding, he said, but that was not correct, adding that the university should not be penalised for excelling, but should rather be congratulated and encouraged to do better.

‘Still struggling’
“UWC is saying, we have an extremely impoverished background, we’re still struggling to make ends meet, but the quality of our learning and teaching and the quality of our research is exceptionally high.”

The university was not immune to the apartheid legacy that all historically black institutions struggled with. “We face so many challenges in thinking about UWC’s future. We really have serious challenges.

“We struggle with providing our students with the most basic technology in this digital age. Our staff [to] student ratio is absurd. It’s so high, it’s absurd. We have infrastructure problems. We don’t have sufficient space for students in residences.”

His solution: “I think UWC needs to get an equitable, I’m not saying an equal, but equitable share of any government funding designed to assist the historically disadvantaged institutions because that would enable the institution to continue with its growth trajectory.”

Pretorius took over from Brian O’Connell in January this year, becoming UWC’s seventh vice-chancellor. An alumnus of the university, Pretorius is a widely published behavioural psychologist.

He was born in Sterkspruit and grew up in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. A father of two, he is a former president and deputy vice-chancellor of Monash South Africa (an Australian university) and, in 2013, the University of Pretoria appointed him as vice-principal responsible for academics and resource allocation.

Historically a coloured institution, UWC counts the increased enrolment of black African students as a stride forward. The university’s 2013 annual report shows 43% students were black, coloured people made up 47% and 5% were Indian, out of a headcount of 19 590.

But Pretorius said it was a challenge “to change the underrepresentation of African professors” at the institution. He said, because of its past as an ethnic institution, UWC had an oversupply of staff from “certain designated groups”.

“Even though in equity terms we look good because the majority of our staff comes from the designated group, the African component of the designated groups are significantly underrepresented at UWC.” The management of the institution was trying to change this, he said, “but then we compete with the better-resourced universities in terms of the pool of African academics”.

Pretorius is equally passionate about transformation of the “apartheid landscape” surrounding the university and the neighbouring Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

The buffer zone between the campuses and the town centre, which physically balkanised UWC like a homeland and removed it from the centre of town, should be developed, he said. The space is largely empty land and a Transnet container depot, but could be turned into a green walking and driving zone.

“We’re talking to the city, province and Transnet that, if we can develop this buffer between UWC and the Bellville CBD [central business district], we will connect two universities with the Bellville CBD as well as with the Tygerberg Hospital, where our dentistry faculty is located.

“We believe such development would revitalise the Bellville CBD, because then students can commute freely.”

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