Creating a system of dedicated funding for post-doctoral fellows within South Africa’s university system seems to hold one solution to the challenge of early career academics, Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of the Witwatersrand, recently suggested. He was speaking at the symposium on Developing the Capacity of Early Career Researchers, that Universities SA (USAf) and the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) co-hosted from the University of Johannesburg’s grounds from 18-19 March.
Prof Habib said there was no reason why a strategically thought-through post-doctoral system could not work for South Africa, given that this was working elsewhere in the world. “Wits, at the moment, has about 200 post-doctoral fellows. UJ has 250. How many post-docs is the NRF and other entities funding? Could that not generate the new generation of early career researchers that we’re looking to develop?” He was intimating that the creation of the next generation of academics was within easier reach than was previously evident. The higher education system only needed to take stock of the various existing initiatives and enable them to talk to one another to achieve systemic impact.
Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University, was in total agreement. From the numerous initiatives presented to the gathering of representatives of 20 public universities, it was clear that a lot was already happening in the system. “I am just not convinced we are pooling our resources and using them in the most effective way possible.” Dr Mabizela said he saw South Africa realising important efficiencies with the right engagements taking place between specific strategic partners and at the right levels. “This is about using resources effectively, avoiding duplication and taking things to scale.”
Facilitate upward mobility in the system
Prof Habib said in the United Kingdom, post-doctoral fellowships were funded very significantly. So the first step in the right direction for South Africa was to secure the requisite funding to create a similar system. Secondly, the system needed to appoint new people to take up supervisory positions and succeed those about to exit the system to retire. Thirdly, there were people already in the system who needed to get promoted and be granted time to conduct research. “Our big challenge is that we need a large pool of PhDs and Masters students and the biggest impediment to expanding that is supervisory capacity.” He therefore said, in addition to creating a more efficient post-doctoral system, universities needed to identify appropriate support needed to keep the post-doctoral fellows doing supervisory work while allowing early career academics to move upward and conduct more research as the older generation exited the system.
Also in agreement with the notion of promoting post-doctoral fellowships, Dr Therina Theron, Senior Director: Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University said the postdoctoral period was a prime time for international mobility, adding that movement should be encouraged in both directions to bring diversity of thinking. She said she was enormously supportive of any efforts to improve postdoctoral fellowships and opportunities in SA for both local and international postdocs, “as I believe that this can play a critical role in providing the additional post-graduate supervisory capacity that we require.”
She pointed out that early career academics could benefit from an improved layer of research and supervisory support provided by postdoctoral fellows as “they are struggling due to teaching and administrative loads, as we’ve seen from the CREST report.” She suggested that SA should not only focus on providing postdoctoral fellowships to local PhD graduates, “as we do not yet have sufficient numbers. We should bring in fellows from all over the world to assist our early career academics with postgraduate supervision, and to relieve some of the pressure on early career academics and expand a system where we do not currently see a growth in permanent academic posts.”
According to Prof Habib, Wits, his institution, was already channeling visiting professors specifically to assist at the post-graduate level – not to pursue their own research interests but to supervise students within the institution and build a pool of post-docs. Recognising the R120m that the Newton fund had already invested in SA to develop early career academics, Prof Habib called on the ACU to explore funding possibilities to create a system-wide post-doctoral fellowship programme to augment the Newton Fund initiative.
On behalf of the ACU, Dr Joanna Newton, CEO and Secretary General, was quite receptive of all the ideas put forward. “I also very much like the idea for increasing supervision capacity although it is sometimes a challenge to persuade researchers to leave unless they are early postdoc or close to retirement. But one can also look at virtual supervision.” She also welcomed the suggestion to look at what the Newton Fund could do by way of not just taking candidates to the UK but also bringing others to provide supervisory relief to South Africa.
Impediments to participation in post-doctoral fellowships; the South African context
The exchange above brought up another dimension to the discussion. Prof Wilson Akpan, Senior Director: Research & Innovation at Walter Sisulu University, raised a concern that South African academics in full-time employment were not allowed to do post-doctoral fellowships, notwithstanding the value of this development route for any system. “The legal framework precludes full-time employed individuals to participate. As a result, emerging opportunities are only available for lecturers from other countries at this stage.” Prof Akpan said while this restriction was hampering progress as far as building the next generation of post-graduate supervisors was concerned, it also presented major equity implications.” At the centre of this problem was local lecturers’ inability to take up post-doctoral fellowships because in doing so they ceased to earn salaries – yet available bursaries were not enough to support families. The WSU academic urged USAf to pay attention to this issue and to engage the regulatory system (National Treasury, the DHET and, to an extent, SARS) to review the current funding regime. “Bursaries have to be increased to make it viable for lecturers in South Africa to take a leave of absence to do post-doctoral fellowships.”
Dr Theron from Stellenbosch added that the current postdoctoral regulations in South Africa were making it difficult to attract international and even local postdocs into public universities, as they were often classified and treated as students. “While their tax-exempt status is absolutely necessary in the current dispensation, they are subsequently unable to receive staff benefits and support. This is not the case elsewhere in the world. Should we want to change their status, however, it will require a significant additional investment.”
The ACU shares lessons from the CIRCLE Fellowship
Tapping into ACU’s lessons drawn from partnerships with numerous institutions across the Commonweath, Mr Ben Prasadam-Hall, ACU’s Director of Programmes concurred that it was a challenge for the institutions deploying candidates to the CIRCLE (Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement) Fellowship to embrace continuing to pay people who had taken time out to do research. “In CIRCLE we signed agreements with each home institution that had terms of references which included the stipulation that they would continue to pay the fellow’s salary while they were out on the fellowship.” Admitting that a stipend was not enough, this arrangements with home institutions turned the CIRCLE Fellowship into a sabbatical of sorts. Of course this raised expectations of optimal benefit from the fellow upon their return. “A lot of the institutions are pulling the fellows into mentoring and sharing their experience and new expertise. Many are mentoring their peers and postgraduate students,” Prasadam-Hall concluded.
After pondering this question further, Prof Habib said even though CIRCLE was a post-doctoral programme, it still was not a post-doctoral fellowship programme in the pure sense. “In a pure sense you can’t earn a salary as a post-doctoral fellow. That is why for this type of programme you need to recruit young of PhD graduates in their mid-20s, with relatively fewer financial obligations compared to those in the middle age. Although they do a bit of teaching, they mostly focus on research and go on to re-generate the academy.”
Prasadam-Hall went on to share a living example of value already being derived from returning post-doctoral fellows: “As we speak, the ACU is running a three-day workshop in Nigeria, driven entirely by fellows from the CIRCLE programme. We have seen that some of the most inspiring people to deliver training to early career researchers are people with similar backgrounds and experience who have gone through the CIRCLE programme. Because of this sharing with peers, CIRCLE has become a very successful programme. The fellows have proven to be great trainers who cascade their training to their peers and can be a great resource in their institutions. Many institutions in the Commonwealth network are looking at mechanisms to formalise the fellows’ sharing of learning with peers within their home systems.”
Post-doctoral fellowships do not automatically lead scholars to early research careers, Prof Taruvinga cautions
From Fort Hare University, Prof Amon Taruvinga, a recent CIRCLE Fellowship alumnus himself, cautioned the conference against considering postdoctoral fellowships as a panacea for transforming fresh PhD graduates into early career researchers. “Most postdocs are currently measured in terms of journal publications rather than innovation and research uptake, thus, moving from systematic knowledge generation to transformation and target knowledge creation. What is lacking is the right mind set in postdocs: that they are the cream of innovation. We need to instil that mind set in them.” Prof Taruvinga said most postdoctoral fellowships are used as a platform to find lucrative positions in industry and elsewhere. “But it could be different if we mentored a postdoc to appreciate the contribution they can make to industry as an academic researcher.”
He admitted that without exposure to CIRCLE, he himself would have gone back to industry after obtaining his PhD. “However, because of my industry background, I wanted to see things implemented on the ground.” Having had the privilege of exposure to two postdoctoral fellowships, he also recalled that “during the first one I was just waiting for a job. However, the second experience changed my mindset when I discovered that whatever I could do in industry, I could also achieve from academia with much fulfilment.”
Career research work is as fulfilling, especially when it generates societal value
An Agricultural Economist by profession, Prof Taruvinga went on to share examples where his research had generated solutions to societal problems on the ground. The one project, in which the University of Fort Hare had collaborated with the Namibia University of Science and Technology, had given birth to a mobile veld fire detection and sharing system for southern Africa. This, after R50, 000 International Academic Exchange Funding support from the Govan Mbeki Research and Development Centre at the University of Fort Hare in 2015, and R1,2million from the NRF & National Commission on Research Science and Technology (NCRST) from 2017 to 2019.
In another project where the University of Fort Hare had collaborated with EMU University College in Kenya, Dr Taruvinga’s work had generated a web-based platform for early malaria detection, warning, monitoring and information sharing – thanks to a R30, 000 Knowledge, Interchange and Collaboration grant received in 2016 from the NRF and Dr Justin Nyaga from EMU University College, also a CIRCLE Fellowship alumnus. At the time of writing this piece in March 2019, Prof Taruvinga was looking for additional funding to pilot test the platform prototype and to upscale it for potential wider use.
Ultimately, his argument was that to generate future career researchers out of post-doctoral fellows, the latter need serious mentorship to change their mindset from just churning out publications while waiting for a better job, to generating value for society.
Where do PhDs go?
Dr Bheki Hadebe, Director: High Skills in the Department of Science and Technology, raised another concern that, notwithstanding funding support that had seen up to 800 PhDs qualifyng in the past decade or so, South Africa lacked a transit point to academia. “Around 2008, there were only in the region of 100 PhDs per year. Despite the numbers growing over the years, we have not translated this into enriching the academic programme. Where do the PhDs go?” He referred to a study that his department had commissioned to the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), which had indicated that students coming out of engineering faculties primarily went to the private sector, not the universities. “This means we don’t have a transit point from PhD into academia. That is why the new DST White Paper is looking to achieve a postdoc retention rate of about 30%. Postdoc is the bottleneck in the system.
We need to uplift those still lagging behind
From the Walter Sisulu University, Prof Rob Midgley, Vice-Chancellor and Principal reminded the conference of lecturers and senior lecturers who had stagnated in the system, on account of lacking the right qualifications.
“How many of them are within the universities of technology (UoTs) or merged institutions with a strong UoT component?” Prof Midgley moved that some attention be given to that particular cohort to see how they could be encouraged to improve their qualifications. This issue was, however, not taken up.
Minister Pandor instilled hope in the system
With a whole session afforded to the conversation over post-doctoral fellowships like that, what comes of the recommendations made in this regard rests on universities taking different decisions and actions, and also on new funding policy decision-making in the regulatory environment. Fortunately, Minister Naledi Pandor of Higher Education and Training, acknowledged in her keynote address at the symposium, that even though her department was doing a lot to boost PhD qualifications, their actions were not radical enough. She said in addition to supporting PhD students studying abroad; attracting a large number of post-doctoral fellows from abroad to expand our PhD supervisory capacity and promoting split-site PhD programmes, her department aimed “to fund the people who supervise good-quality PhDs to a considerably higher level, and dispense considerably larger PhD and postdoctoral bursaries for longer. This approach would be good for senior scientists, good for their junior colleagues, good for students, good for science – and good for South Africa.”
That notwithstanding, some delegates still felt that more lobbying and advocacy was warranted for a more radical funding regime to enable academics in full-time employ to also take up post-doctoral opportunities without jeopardizing their ability to support families.
USAf’s job is clearly cut-out in this regard.