This is an edited version of a speech by Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng to the 2020 Universities Australia Conference.
The theme of this conference is Education Changes Lives.
If ‘education changes lives’ was a person, I’d sure be their face! I grew up in a poor family and my mother was a domestic worker who went back to complete primary school after giving birth to three children—and I’m the second one.
She and my dad—who also did not have high-school education—regarded education as the most important inheritance they could ever give us. In fact, the year that I started school is the same year that my mother went back to start her eighth year of school.
I started school under a tree in a rural village in the north-eastern part of South Africa. I did everything that young people from the age of five do as they grow up in a village, from fetching water to fetching wood and cooking on a fireplace on the ground.
Starting school under a tree was a normality for many black children in apartheid South Africa. No one would have guessed back then that I’d be here today.
Last year, I was honoured to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol. At the ceremony, the orator of my citation invited me to speak. As I walked up towards the podium, my mother leapt up from the front row of the audience. Actually, leap is a metaphor. She’s quite old and has bad legs. Nevertheless, with some help, she made her way up to the stage, where she performed a praise poem in Setswana, my native language.
You can imagine the surprise among the assembled graduates. They have never had such a performance. I had to explain to them the significance. In my culture, the matriarch sings a praise poem at highly significant events.
Praise poems say who you are as a people: the animals, the rivers, valleys in the mountains that you’re associated with; your struggles, the battles you have fought and won.
So at our graduation ceremonies at UCT we always have a praise singer. But in my family, we did not always wait for graduations. Such was the importance of education to us that when my siblings and I came home from school, my mother would sing a praise poem simply because it was another day of education under our belts. It mattered that much. Every day, she reminded us of who we are as a people.
So, for the girl who started school under a tree, it is a miracle that I’m standing here today, vice-chancellor of the leading university in Africa.
My mother recognised that power of education. It was the greatest enabler in my life. It changed the life of my family.
My mother, by the way, went on to complete her schooling. And when I graduated with my PhD, she got her bachelor’s degree.
And now that very education is changing the lives of other young black women who look at me and see many possibilities opening up for them.
I wanted to tell this story because I really want to emphasise my belief in the power of education to change lives, because I know what it did in my life.
I characterise what’s happening now with me—where I am, given where I come from—as a miracle. Because this story—or this end to a story—such as mine is not usual. Not everyone with whom I started school under trees survived.
But as much as I believe that education changes life, I believe even more strongly that lives do, and should, change education too.
And if we, as university leaders, do not recognise this then it means we will find it difficult, if not impossible, to lead in a rapidly changing world.
To think of this matter only as ‘education changing lives’ assumes three things:
First, it assumes that education is neutral, perfect and doesn’t change.
Second, it assumes that education is benign. It is innocent. It just does the positive.
And third, it assumes that education takes place in a static world.
But, as Paulo Freire said, it is impossible to think about education without considering the question of power. The idea of education changing lives evokes the question: in favour of whom or what?
The truth is that education is political. And the more we silence the political dimension of education, the more we assume the moral potential to blame the victims of education, and argue that dropouts are always to blame.
Of course, dropouts for the most part are from marginalised groups, or minority groups. In many contexts, the minority are in fact the majority who find themselves outside the sphere of political and economic dominance. As an educationalist and a leader in higher education, I often wonder whether there is a possibility that some people emerge as dropouts from universities because they’re resisting and refusing to read the world the way they have been taught it.
Many theorists are willing to ascribe a possible correlation between the high dropout rates and low socioeconomic backgrounds of the students. Some fail to establish political and ideological linkages in their analysis.
When curriculum designers fail to incorporate the values of the minority groups in the curriculum, when they refuse to accept and legitimise the students’ languages, their actions point to the inflexibility and insensitivity of a curriculum designed to benefit only those who wrote it.
I’m sure many of us can acknowledge that the education we offer is not perfect—that it may have negative effects and that it takes place in a rapidly changing world.
The weakness is that sometimes we assume that we as leaders know best how to respond, without listening or paying attention to the lives we lead.
We in South Africa learnt the danger of these assumptions the hard way in the last few years in our education.
Since the dawn of democracy in 1994, our universities have changed radically. We have purposely and creatively defined a comprehensive transformation agenda and policy framework for higher education that puts us on the road to overcoming an apartheid past and creating a higher education system that is more suited to the needs of the social, equitable and developing democracy.
University student enrolments since 1994 have grown from 473,000 to over 1 million students. Black students today comprise over 80 per cent of the student body, and women 58 per cent – an academic achievement tempered by high dropout rates and poor graduation rates. Still, it is a success that has given rise to important new challenges, including the 2015–2017 student protests.
We looked at these numbers before 2015 and thought that this was a picture of success. Since apartheid we had made higher education accessible to a large number of black students. Now education could go ahead with changing their lives – as if there was nothing more to be done. In other words, there was an expectation that these students would come into higher education now that access was created for them—they would accept it as perfect and that it would change their lives for the better.
In fact, it can be argued today that higher education leaders of the time failed these students, because there was no recognition of how this changing student body required a different kind of institution, different ways of engaging with them and different kind of leadership.
We paid a huge price. Between 2015 and 2017 we had to contend with student protest movements: #Rhodesmustfall, which led to the removal of the statue of the colonial leader Cecil John Rhodes from its prime position on our campus, #Afrikaansmustfall in the intellectual space and #feesmustfall in the material and admission space and #outsourcingmustfall in the employment space.
While these student movements are mainly in universities, they are profoundly about political change. They are part of a larger challenge to the ruling elite, confronting constitutional agnosticism, corruption and white privilege, all of which confront poverty and inequality.
They are also not limited to South Africa, because the deeper issues of inequality and cultural alienation are urgent international issues. We’ve seen student protests during the same period, as well as demands for transformation and decolonisation, flare up in many countries around the world, including the UK, the USA and in the Netherlands—where they had their own share with the demands of the new university, as well as the Bungehuis and Maagdenhuis occupations.
Through these movements, students challenged the expectation that they should assimilate and accept that the education before them is benign and good for them.
They called for a complete rejection of the systemic and the symbolic in intellectual worlds that are inhospitable. They made a point that they don’t feel at home in our universities. They do not recognise themselves in what they have to learn, the buildings, the artwork, the curriculum or the people leading them: they demanded the decolonisation of higher education.
They pushed universities and government leadership to the point where finally their lives changed the education system. They started a challenging but exciting—depending on perhaps how you feel on a particular day, or on which political side you lean—journey in which our universities are transforming themselves with quite startling rapidity, given the general inability of such a large bureaucratic institutions to change even the type of soap they put in their bathrooms.
But here’s the thing.
These students could only demand this change because they themselves had been changed by education.
It was the education they received from us that equipped them with the tools they used to critique and change it.
And here’s another thing. Did you notice the hashtags in the naming of the movements? #Rhodesmustfall #outsourcingmustfall #feesmustfall.
That’s generation C, a powerful new force in consumer culture.
It is not only an age group; it is an attitude and mindset that describes people who care deeply about creation, curation, connection and community.
These are our students today. They are our staff members. Ninety per cent of them sleep next to their smartphones. A notable aspect of the activism of generation C has been its Twitter dimension.
It is a social movement mobilised via social media to become what my colleague at UCT, Tanja Bosch, has described as a collective project of resistance to normative memory production, creating a new landscape of minority memory and bringing to the fore the memory of groups who have been rendered invisible in the landscape that’s speaking to an alternative interpretation of historical events.
Tanja Bosch argues that the student activism that lubricated this counter-memory shows the politics and practices involved in listening across difference or political listening that can undo the oppression that happens partly through not hearing certain kinds of expression from certain kinds of people.
We were at the coalface of the roiling activism at UCT. And vice-chancellors sitting safely in universities in the global north might have been breathing a sigh of relief and thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I”.
The Honourable Michael Kirby in his keynote asked what happened to the activism of the fifties, sixties and seventies. And it’s true. In the comfort of many countries in the global north today, activism is not as visible as it used to be.
My view is that it is coming. I have just two words that point towards it: Greta Thunberg. She and her movement of schoolchildren are bunking school to wake us up to the catastrophe that is climate change.
The question to us is whether education is changing their lives, or are they changing education?
And how do we lead these students of today?
The first keynote speaker, Professor Justin Wolfers, pointed to two important trends that are relevant here: the massification of higher education and the feminisation of higher education.
The massification of education, as he pointed out, is leading to greater diversity. Perhaps not quickly enough, but universities almost everywhere in the world are being challenged to diversify more and many of them are putting huge, commendable efforts into doing so.
Diversity is seen as a good thing when an argument for inclusivity is made. But there’s still an assumption of assimilation even as we talk about diversity and inclusivity. We don’t always recognise the way an institutional culture may need to change in order to embrace this diversity and to make inclusivity work.
These lives that we recruit to our campuses from different communities will change the environment. And if we, as university leaders, don’t recognise that, and don’t engage with it and change the way we lead, there will be a disconnect between us and the lives that we want to change. And the education we offer will lose the power to change lives.
Making education accessible to Indigenous and other previously marginalised people is important, but I believe it is not sufficient if the institution continues to do things as before: expecting the new diverse body of students and staff to adapt or die. It can perpetuate marginalisation because they have to accept that their way of being, their way of seeing and their way of doing is not good enough. But that’s disempowering. This cannot be good for the students and certainly not beneficial to the sector.
In a time of change, if you do not lead differently, if you do things in the same way, then nobody benefits from the diversity you have brought into your institution.
In fact, nobody wins.
The feminisation of education has been more complete than other kinds of diversity in terms of numbers at student level. We could sit back and think we have achieved our goals.
But I think we need to ask ourselves two questions. The first is: are we allowing education to change enough to adapt to this feminisation? Secondly, will we be as open to embracing other kinds of diversity that don’t always show up in such numbers?
What should we be doing? How should we lead in this in this time of change?
I believe that the most important thing we can do is to reach out to those we are leading and recognise the change, their upbringing and to allow both the way we lead and the institutions themselves to change accordingly.
If we don’t listen to those whose lives we’re trying to change through education—if we simply impose the education we think is good for them in the belief that we know best and have nothing to learn from our changing environments and our students—then we will become disconnected from them.
They will continue in the distressing trend that has already started: a growing scepticism and a loss of faith and trust in the institutions of higher learning in some places. And then we will no longer be able to change their lives for the better.
Leadership in a rapidly changing world is about changing. It’s about challenging oneself to do what has not been done before and risking failure. Not many people want to risk failure, everyone wants to play it safe.
But the rewards that come with risking failure, if it becomes a success, are great.
We’ve got to risk failure and do things differently in this rapidly changing world.