Speaking to the topic of Transformation and Human Capital Development in Universities, the Chief Director: Human Capital and Science Promotion in the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Dr Phethiwe Matutu, noted that even though the number of Honours, Masters, Doctoral and post-Doctoral Fellows supported by DST programmes had more than doubled from 2008/09 to 2014/15, the beneficiaries constituted only a third of research and instructional staff with a PhD qualification. “In 2015, women and black researchers constituted 30% and 24%, respectively, of all rated researchers.”
The responses of delegates to the issues presented by both Dr Whittle Green and Dr Matutu highlighted a range of challenges experienced in the sector. For example, universities often know how many new academic entrants to employ, and in which disciplines, in order to maintain reasonable staff-to-student ratios. However, the affordability (salary wise) of these academics, as raised by the University of Pretoria’s VC Prof de la Rey, was a major deciding factor in achieving transformational recruitment. As a possible solution, Prof Habib, VC of the University of the Witwatersrand and also USAf’s Chairperson, suggested joint appointments; something that was already done at overseas institutions, but not locally, notwithstanding its huge value-added potential. He also broached the idea of implementing developmental interventions in carefully-chosen institutions, as opposed to doing this system-wide. Prof de la Rey countered that point, arguing that prioritising certain disciplines, especially in view of the decline of black students in the Humanities, could add better value. She also suggested, within the context of decolonising, Africanising and transforming the curriculum, that scholars from the rest of the African continent be considered for this purpose, also urging that conversations such as this should keep in mind both teaching and research purposes.
From the Central Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Prof Chris Nhlapo drew attention to mid-career researchers. His point was that in the quest to support human capital development, sight should not be lost of mid-careerists, who were neither emerging nor established and were largely black. Prof Yunus Ballim, Vice-Chancellor of Sol Plaatjie University (SPU) responded that a support programme sponsored by the National Research Foundation (NRF) was already addressing mid-career researchers. He also pointed out that a large number of black students missed the qualifying mark to enter post-graduate study. Therefore, additional interventions within the framework of the Teaching Development Grant are needed to support good students to do even better and gravitate towards post-graduate studies.
Once again, differentiating the system and targeting growth in specific niche areas was advanced as a solution to address the conundrum of limited resources. A question also arose around other government departments (beyond the DHET and DST) contributing to human capital development in order to address their own focus areas. Recognising the fact that there was a slow turnover of academic staff, it was moved that PhD students be considered as junior staff within a university tutorial system. Joint appointments between universities and industry were also suggested as a solution to high salary demands in specific disciplines.
Ultimately, delegates conceded that universities could do more to support blacks and women to become excellent academics and researchers. That South Africa’s demographics were currently not adequately matched at university award ceremonies should raise serious questions in the sector. As a way forward, USAf will co-ordinate a sector-wide Human Capital Development Programme for universities and, to that end, also engage the DHET, DST and the NRF to prioritise national needs and optimise available funding.
Towards taking the nGAP to a manageable level, Dr Green said it was important to make realistic projections, especially in this low-growth economic environment. While the intended annual intake of 400 was not feasible in the medium term, attempts should be made, nonetheless, to keep growing the numbers year-on-year. In the meantime, the DHET was looking at exhausting all possibilities to resolve the funding issue. Considerations included redirecting unspent funds accumulating at some universities, within the SETAs, and also at philanthropic donor organisations.
The call for 2017 nominations for the programme would be made during the last quarter of 2016.