Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 15

innovation at the University of South Africa (UNISA),
was upbeat about her new job. “Given what UCT is,
my view is that the university should be the go-to
place when it comes to relevant, responsive research
that contributes to the growth and wellbeing of the
country and continent.
“I hope to consolidate and sustain that [UCT’s]
performance while transforming the cohort of
researchers to ensure we don’t only lead when it
comes to research productivity and influence, but
also when it comes to researching transformation and
transforming research.” Phakeng is working alongside
Visser for the first six months, to get to know the turf,
“important because it will help me serve better”.
The decision to move south and make her academic
home at UCT was also made easier by timing. “My
term at UNISA was coming to an end and I needed a
different experience, a new challenge.”
A National Research Foundation B2-rated researcher
(with plenty of publications and citations in her area
of research), Phakeng regards the rating as her best
academic achievement to date. “It came only 10
years after my PhD.” The achievement is set against
a backdrop of several other important research and
community work awards.
The big one is the 2011 National Science and
Technology Forum award for innovative
research on teaching and learning
mathematics in multilingual
classrooms. In 2013, CEO
magazine called her the most
influential woman in education
and training in South Africa
and in 2014, she was named
the Most Influential Woman
in Academia in Africa.
Those who have met
Phakeng talk of her
enthusiasm, energy
and personal style. It’s a
particularly charismatic
combination for young people
and it’s the youth with their
teeming ideas and get-up-and-go
attitude that inspire her.
townships and rural areas aren’t lost to the country.
“I started the foundation because being the first
to achieve anything is a responsibility to ensure
that one is not the last,” she added. “Human capital
development is at the centre of what I do – all of my
initiatives are about developing people and inspiring
them to be the best in whatever they choose to be.”
Transformation and education
Reflecting on the sharp advent in 2015 and
continuation of student activism around inclusive
and free higher education, Phakeng said the
#FeesMustFall campaign signalled opportunity
and danger. “It may be the beginning of the rise,
or fall, of South African public higher education as
we know it.
“Depending on how government responds, we may
see the emergence of a stronger private higher
education sector and thus the beginning of a thriving
parallel higher education system like the one we have
in basic education: one for the poor and the other
for the rich. This is undesirable.” She added: “The
#FeesMustFall campaign is about free education for
all, which is essentially about ensuring that higher
education is not commodified. The government’s
response, however, is about free education for the
poor through NSFAS, which suggests that those who
can afford it must pay.
“My concern is that while the government
has increased NSFAS funding and given
additional money to universities to
deal with the 0% increase in fees for
2016, it is not responding to the real
issue that the students are raising
– ending the commodification
of public higher education.” But
more than that, it’s also about
basic education, says Phakeng.
“We need a plan or road map
that indicates how we can
achieve free education for all in
South Africa. Such a plan should
start by immediately ensuring free
education for the poor at all levels.
We also need a study that investigates
the success and limitations of the no-fee
schools since inception in 2007.”
“Young people come first for me; some remind me of
myself many years ago and others give me hope. They
are our future.” She’s very active on social media and
welcomes any platform to engage with them – the
more interactive the communication, the better. Besides
people and ideas, causes absorb her.
But behind her ardent support of youth and their
education – and behind her own achievements – is the
spectre of poverty. “The idea of ‘lack’ just scares me.
I had enough of it as a young person and so I work
hard to make sure that I never go back there – and in
the process, I try to protect as many young people as
I can from poverty.”
Phakeng started the Adopt-a-learner Foundation in
2004 to ensure that gifted young black people in
By Helen Swingler. Image supplied.

Adopt-a-learner Foundation

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