The brainchild of Professor Vivienne Lawack, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, the initiative provides a platform to UWC alumni to contribute to the debate around the intellectual identity and curriculum transformation of universities, both currently hotly debated topics in South Africa.
“When the students were talking about decolonisation and transformation, we grappled with this as the University, and the easiest way would have been to make a few [curriculum] changes that would keep some people happy,” Prof Lawack says.
But such superficial changes would not get to grips with what it means to transform the curriculum. “So we took a step back and said, ‘let’s try to establish the intellectual identity of UWC in a focus group discussion; what it is currently and what would we want to be going forward’.”
The University had previously hosted a series of group discussions with students and after analysing their input, decided to consult alumni as one of the University’s most important stakeholders, who were “more intimately involved with UWC’s identity than anyone else”.
The two Conversations saw robust discussion between the eight panelists and alumni audiences. Professor Brian Figaji suggested that UWC could contribute to the intellectual needs of the state, much as it had done in the 1980s, when it assisted preparations for the new state. “I wonder if it would not be fitting to link the new intellectual identity to the needs, wants and essentials of a capable state. This state is in such disarray that it needs intellectual recap.”
Lorato Mokwena suggested that the culture of research should be demystified and reinvented for the UWC audience. The University should adopt different learning and teaching methods to accommodate different students with different capabilities.
Chrispin Phiri, while noting that UWC graduates held influential positions throughout society, felt that UWC was disconnected from the surrounding communities and that therefore, “We need to move from being an isolated university to the one that is integrated to society from the intellectual point of view.”
Dr Glynis Pieterse felt that UWC should retain its core value of focusing on social justice. “We must not just provide students with academic qualifications but with the social consciousness to use their privilege of attaining education for the betterment of society,” she said.
Myron Leonard asserted that the curriculum should contain the real experience of students and UWC should create alternatives of understanding of social issues such as poverty.
The culture of diversity should continue to be embraced to instil tolerance among students and UWC should strongly encourage community engagement and voluntarism, added Celiwe Hlekani-Falteni.
In his contribution, Prof Cornelius Thomas said UWC was a transformative, national-building university which emphasised community, development and liberation and that this should continue.