26 July 2013
Erasmus Mundus Students Honoured

Erasmus Mundus sends top South African scholars to Europe

Hundreds of students, members of staff and dignitaries attended a day-long pre-departure conference and a special dinner on 26 July 2013, to celebrate at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) the impending departure of Erasmus Mundus grantees.

The three Erasmus Mundus consortia involved in the programme for 2013 are led by the University of Antwerp, KU Leuven University in Belgium, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The European Union's (EU) Erasmus Mundus Programme aims to enhance quality in higher education through scholarships and academic cooperation between Europe and the rest of the world. It achieves this by, among other things, supporting joint partnership programmes for master's degrees and doctorates between European and non-European higher education institutions, and funding students from these countries to study at European universities.

One hundred and twenty nine postgraduate students and staff from universities across South Africa were selected for this honour for the 2013/2014 academic year – 64 master's degree candidates, 38 doctoral students and 27 staff members would serve as ambassadors to Europe for 2013. Of this number, 21 are based at UWC, and over the last 3 years over 18 UWC staff members and students have been awarded the grant.

UWC's Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Prof Ramesh Bharuthram, opened the conference, welcoming more than 180 attendees, including Mahlubi Mabizela and Ghalib Jeppie of the Department of Higher Education and Training. Prof Bharuthram explained the importance of the Erasmus Mundus Programme in South Africa, a country in which research output has stagnated, rates of completed tertiary education are low, and much of the academic population is aging. “These challenges require out-of-the-box thinking to establish a critical mass of South Africans with the capacity to engage in critical thinking,” he explained. “Successful Erasmus Mundus scholars join the critical knowledge-base needed for South Africa's knowledge development.”

Dr Berene Kramer, a member of the European Union delegation to South Africa and the person ultimately in charge of the Erasmus Mundus Programme in South Africa, discussed the history of the programme and explored how it had grown over the years. “When you go to Europe now, you will be joined by about 8 000 Erasmus Mundus grantees from five of the seven continents in the world, all with their own experiences and stories to share.”

European Union Ambassador and head of the EU delegation, Roeland van de Geer, described Europe's long and complicated relationship with Africa and South Africa, and expressed the EU's desire to forge a satisfying and prosperous trading partnership and alliance with South Africa. The Erasmus Mundus Programme is one of the important initiatives that have been implemented in order to make that desire a reality. Fortunately, there are signs that the desired transformation is under way.

“South Africa has come a very long way,” van de Geer said. “Many problems have remained. Some have gotten worse. However, the general direction is positive, and I think universities have played a very important role in the transition between where we are now and where we’ve come from, and will play an equal role in terms of where we go from here.”

He urged the grantees to maximise their time in Europe for themselves and their country. “It's still a struggle to get Europeans to understand why South Africa is such an important place to invest in. Fortunately, we have 129 South African ambassadors entering the EU over the coming months. Enjoy Europe, and your experiences with Europeans. Yes, it's cold. Yes, they don't always speak English that well. But on the whole, they are alright. Have a good trip.”

After grantees, sponsors and the like had a chance to relax and get to know each other, the event resumed with a dinner conference. Prof Lorna Holtman, Director of Postgraduate Studies at UWC, welcomed the guests. “We really welcome the generous partnerships we have with the EU,” she said. “Not only will they allow us to develop our capacities in terms of knowledge and skills, but they also cement relationships – both between the north and the south, and also within South Africa. The possibilities for further collaboration are already mushrooming.”

Three Erasmus Mundus scholarship students also expressed their feelings at the dinner, before the dessert and dancing began, about their Erasmus Mundus opportunities.

Khaya Hamano thanked UWC for preparing him to head to the Czech Republic to complete his doctorate in Education, on Support for teacher development: the case of the provincial education departments and districts in South Africa. “This is a wonderful opportunity,” he noted, “and I'm sure that what I’ll learn will help us as a country.”

Lovelyn Ndaweni described how her ten-month master's programme in Peace and Politics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden will give her the chance to learn more about how to improve foreign affairs and policy. “It took me a long time to learn that if I wanted to succeed, I had to dig deeper and never stop learning, and this opportunity will help me continue this process of education.”

Ashley Muller is currently completing a master's in Nanoscience and leaving for a master's in Molecular and Cellular Biophysics, hosted in Belgium. “We often don't realise how the smallest efforts on our part can make a big difference in someone else's life,” he said. “This partnership may seem to Erasmus Mundus to be a small effort, but to me it means the world.”

For more information, please contact Professor Lorna Holtman, the UWC co-ordinator for Erasmus Mundus Action 2, at 021 959 9286, or via lholtman@uwc.ac.za.