Why I’m proud of my institution

I work at a university with a long history of opposing injustice and inequity, and I really do believe that working here makes a positive contribution to progress in the country. Sadly, during the last few weeks we’ve been associated less with a vision for uplifting our people, and more with chaos and dispute. I wanted to publicly share this letter to the campus community, emailed to us all yesterday from the Rector. He is a wonderful man who presents the situation with insight and personal reflection that humanises the issues we’re currently grappling with. As always, I am extremely proud to be associated with this institution.


When I drove into the campus this morning just after 4:30 I experienced such profound sadness. The campus was at rest and at peace. It reminded me of how it was before that fateful day, 2 August 2010, when the SRC led a march supported by SASCO and PASMA to protest about financial aid. That day added another dimension to the history of UWC from one where our University was being hailed as a great South African success story, an institution that had courageously faced its past and turned its face to the future.  We are known as a caring university which kept its fees low and which supports students in every imaginable way, especially with respect to finances. Our processes at the start of each year to assist students to continue with their studies despite deep financial challenges marked UWC as special. Much of that changed on 2 August and today UWC is spoken of in the press, as an institution in chaos, whilst only a very small number of its students have declared war on their fellow students and the university. This is indeed reason for profound sadness.

In my letter to the Campus yesterday I gave you an insight into the problem.  At the heart of the matter is the need by a small percentage of UWC students for support from NSFAS, the national students financial aid system.  Because of the large number of students who had applied and were eligible for NSFAS, most of the R64 million granted to UWC had been allocated to those students by June of this year. Many students applied after this and the funds available to assist them were by then depleted.

The SRC was informed that UWC had approached NSFAS for additional funds and that UWC would do its best to support those students when it received additional monies from NSFAS. This message was not well received by the students concerned and more marches followed. Aspects of the demands made were dealt with but the matter of additional funds from NSFAS remained as the major concern.

To our great surprise, the demands moved away from NSFAS funds to one that called on UWC to guarantee that the University would provide the funds for each of the students who had applied in the second semester. The responsibility was now shifted from NSFAS to UWC. Our surprise was even greater when students, still under the banner of the SRC, began to attack the university physically in order to press this demand.

The analogy is that of a large family where a few members have a particular financial need and demand that the rest of the family support them or face physical attacks from them. Instead of the family working out how they might best support the need, the family’s home is attacked by the family’s own needy members, and the other family members are even prevented from going to work. This is what UWC has now experienced.

UWC is a national resource funded by the state, donors and students fees to support the high level intellectual needs of our nation within its African context. It is a precious national asset and has a very important job to do. It is unconscionable that it should come under attack from its own family members and be prevented from performing its important task. On 24 August we experienced a dark day when groups of students went as far as disrupting classes, disrupting conferences and even causing some damage, though slight, to a few buildings. This cannot be tolerated and it is clear that some of our students have divorced themselves from our fellowship and have now constructed UWC and the rest of its family as their enemy, to be attacked with impunity. This cannot continue.

We have consistently been engaging with the SRC to find a way to deal with this matter. The bottom line from the SRC has been that UWC must find the money for these students and that the attacks will continue until we do. UWC is not in the position to take on the responsibility of NSFAS and can only assist students with the help of the state or from bursaries made available by donors for needy students who excel academically. Annually UWC does set aside some of its own funds money for financial aid but this is limited. The solution that the SRC is seeking does not lie inside the UWC family and attacks on the family cannot secure the funds.

Damage has been done to the reputation of UWC and it will take hard work to restore our, but we must begin the task. To protect its staff, students and buildings from those family members who have turned against us, UWC has sought relief from the courts through a Court Order which seeks to stop the attacks. This Court Order has been granted and will come into effect today, 25 August 2010. We ask all our students (our entire family, and especially those have been moved to turn against us) to reconcile and assist with bringing peace to our campus so that we can set about the tasks of finding answers to our challenges as a family.

UWC is a beacon of light in our nation and it will continue to demonstrate what is possible under challenging circumstances. Its responsibility is to educate its students to reach the highest levels of competence in their fields of study and to serve our much challenged nation diligently. In addressing this letter to all members of our family I am asking everyone to pause, reflect and then move quickly  to becoming a family again where we seek to support one another, while each of us commit ourselves fully to the task that this family has to grow our nations store of human capital.

My short term dream is to drive into this campus tomorrow morning (26 August) and know that the family has joined hands in search of a common good future.

Prof Brian OConnell

Rector & Vice-Chancellor

25 August 2010

conference education open access

Opencourseware Consortium panel discussion at UWC

Last Friday I was fortunate enough to attend 2 panel discussions on the use of OER in higher education. It was a bit of an occasion as one of the panels included a few board members of the Opencourseware Consortium (on a side note, UWC is a member of the OCW Consortium). This post is really just a few of the comments made during the panels.

The session began with a welcome message by the university’s Chancellor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a wonderful man who is always a pleasure to listen to. Something he said struck a chord with me, as I’ve been reflecting on this issue with my students in the ethics module I teach. He said to remember that we are not second rate, and that we don’t have to apologise for who we are. This is important because so often I find that my students lack self-confidence and seem almost apologetic for even being here. The history of this particular institution seems to haunt them, and they can’t seem to shake the belief that their degree isn’t worth the same as one from another university. This is obviously a deep issue that I’m not going to go into here, but I just wanted to mention that comment.

The Vice-Chancellor also made an interesting point in his short welcome address. That is, a redistribution of wealth from the rich 10% won’t significantly improve the lot of the poor 90%. Only by empowering the majority of the people to make their own change, can the country move forward.

The other comments I made a note of included the following:

Andy Lane (Open University, UK): OER is not just good to do. It’s about some form of social justice.

Neil Butcher (OER Africa, South Africa): Curricular frameworks must drive the development of OER i.e. content is not the focus, content comes after pedagogy

Derek Keats (Wits University, South Africa): 1) When content is free, students can use scarce financial resources to acquire technology, which opens up access to an even greater body of content. 2) When institutional strategy is developed around OER, faculty pushback can be reduced

N.B: 1) Institutional pushback is reduced when the OER conversation happens around better ways of addressing faculty and student needs. 2) The content is infrastructure.

Philip Schmidt (Peer 2 Peer University): When lecturers become "internet superstars", they can teach a greater body of students than any traditional lecturer could teach in a lifetime. This reduces the emphasis on formal recognition of professional development.

Ultimately, OER is about content, but I’m more interested to know if it has a role to play in changing teaching and learning practice?