Item 1083 - Nelson Mandela’s opening address of the 26th International Conference on Improving University Teaching; Johannesburg, South Africa, July 2001

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ZA COM MR-S-1083


Nelson Mandela’s opening address of the 26th International Conference on Improving University Teaching; Johannesburg, South Africa, July 2001


  • July 2001 (Creation)

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Transcription of speech made by Mr Mandela

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(18 July 1918-5 December 2013)

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Migrated from the Nelson Mandela Speeches Database (Sep-2018).

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26th International Conference on Improving University Teaching

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  • English

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Thank you for the invitation to participate in this very important conference.

Nothing can be more central to the future of humanity as we enter this third millennium than the provision of high quality and effective education.

This is indeed the information age. The divide between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the deprived, the powerful and the marginalised have become marked primarily by a differentiation in access to knowledge and information. Those who have access to cutting edge knowledge hold the advantage in all arenas of social, political and economic life today.

Higher and further education has a particularly crucial role to play in addressing these challenges of our time. This conference is an important contribution to the deliberations about how high higher education can meet those challenges.

I shall not pretend to be an expert in higher education or the specialised aspects of learning and teaching that this conference focuses on. What I do wish to address in these few brief remarks are some of the expectations that societies in the developing world have of universities and institutions of higher learning.

There was a time when universities were not primarily concerned with the special and often quite individualised needs of students. The institutions were repositories of great scientific and scholarly learning and it was up to the student to find his or her way into that specialised world. The members of the faculty were experts in their particular fields and their task was to continue to improve their scholarly expertise. To spend special energy on teaching those that could not cope was not always part of the primary function of the academic.

Universities must continue to be leading institutions for specialised high level scientific knowledge. In our own country, where we spend lots of time and energy contemplating issues of transformation also in higher education, that demand must remain non-negotiable. For South Africa to become and remain competitive in the modern world our universities and technikons must develop ever greater skills and expertise. Our scholars must be given the opportunities and facilities to deepen and expand their knowledge in their chosen fields of expertise.

What one expects of the university in the changed circumstances is that it should utilise its expertise to find ways of greater sharing of knowledge.

It is not merely by accident that those from particular sectors of society are better skilled in accessing the world of knowledge than others. It is not as if those from poorer backgrounds or from the socially marginalised sectors have innately less intelligence or skills of knowledge acquisition. Many of these differences are socially and historically conditioned and are therefore capable of being addressed.

One is aware of relatively successful attempts locally to focus on those challenges of teaching and learning.

I am, for example, aware of how the University of the Western Cape under the leadership of Professor Dick van der Ross already pioneered such measures as early as in the mid-Seventies. There they focussed on accommodating the educationally disadvantaged and responding to their needs. Even from jail we watched how they threw open their doors to the most disadvantaged in the mid-Eighties, concentrating on strategies of academic development and learner-centredness. The results are there for all to see: students from that institution today in major positions in all sectors of society.

I am also aware of a similar role played by our host institution under the leadership of Professor Pieter de Lange when this university addressed itself particularly to the learning needs of working class Afrikaner students. Today that task has been broadened to address the special needs of students from all disadvantaged communities.

There are of course other institutions that have done similar work. I mentioned those two merely because of their deliberate decisions to address themselves ahead of their times to the needs of the educationally disadvantaged. That challenge has not decreased with time; on the contrary, it is even more urgent than ever.

The eradication of inequality and of poverty is the major task of our transformational project. Providing effective access to science and learning is the most crucial and generic task in that regard. Actively recognising the student as a learner with needs and special circumstances is an important first step.

This is, I must add, not to shift responsibility away from the student. I always make the point that poverty and deprivation are not conditions discovered by the current generation of students. In many respects those of us from previous generations had to battle even greater odds. What we are signalling is a greater recognition world wide that universities and institutions of higher learning do have a primary obligation to their students to make knowledge accessible, and to facilitate the learning process.

This is not only a challenge for universities in South Africa where we are confronting the legacy of centuries of discrimination and oppression. It is a challenge with global dimensions and ramifications. A secure future for humanity depends as much as anything else on the rapid narrowing of the gap between the rich and the poor within single nations and amongst nations. Provision of effective access to knowledge is key in that global quest.

It is therefore very heartening to welcome such a distinguished international gathering to our country to contemplate and discuss these issues.

I wish you well in your deliberations, trusting that the fruits thereof shall accrue to the benefit of all of us.

I thank you.

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Acquisition method: From hard drive ; Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation Prof J Gerwel. Accessioned on 17/03/01 by Razia Saleh




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