On 20 June, 2019, Professor Jonathan Jansen, Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University and President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, attended the USAf Board of Directors’ Ordinary Meeting, by special invitation to present a new programme aimed at fast-tracking senior researchers to full professorship at South Africa’s public universities. The programme was initiated by the former Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Naledi Pandor.
Professor Jansen indicated that the respective vice-chancellors had received personal communication and background on this initiative. An advertisement had also been placed in the Sunday Times, inviting applications via scholars’ host universities. In light of this, Professor Jansen was invited to introduce and elucidate the programme and to respond to questions from Vice-Chancellors.
This is a distinct capacity building programme and national a project looking to turn senior researcher/lecturers into associate professors and full professors in a shorter space of time than would have been the case without this intervention. Stemming from students’ complaints during the #Feesmustfall protests, about the absence of black professors, this initiative aims to be transformative, targeting women and black academics. Highly focused on generating serious research professors, the project will use the NRF rating system to identify candidates – all with the intention, “To put young scholars on the cusp of promotion that will take them to the next level,” Professor Jansen explained.
Capacity building will entail five to six sessions of highly structured, residential, over-weekend seminars in South Africa. Subsequently, candidates will be placed in seminars and laboratories abroad.
“We are looking for people with a proven level of success in publishing in respected journals, hence our preference for NRF-rated researchers,” Professor Jonathan Jansen (left) said. “This means the Future Professors Programme is not for emerging researchers.”
He concluded by inviting vice-chancellors to each designate a liaison within their respective institutions to manage this initiative, and to each nominate five candidates to the programme.
Board questions and comments
The vice-chancellors’ response was once again positive all round, even though reservations were also expressed in certain respects, as evident in the discussion that ensued, all summarised below.
Question: Where an institution is already running a programme seeking to achieve a similar objective, can it nominate the candidates in its own fast-tracking programme to the Future Professors programme, even if this means contributing to the national resource pool?
Response: We want to emphasise complementarity rather than competition and therefore we would highly welcome the idea of resources circulating across the system.
Question: How flexible will this programme be? Will it accommodate candidates in teaching environments, so that this cohort is not be overlooked in favour of people from the research stream?
Response: Seminars dedicated to grooming scholars into excellence in public scholarship are already included in the curriculum. We will mostly focus on the research side, consideringthat this is the main criterion for promotion in South African universities.
Once again members of the USAf Board commended the programme for its intention. They however also expressed their discomfort about the new initiative.
Question: If our university has 20 candidates in a fast-tracking initiative, you will pluck out only three to four people. How do we strike a balance between institutional and national goals? How sustainable is your initiative going to be?
Response: The programme is looking at taking in three cohorts running in two successive years each. I cannot speak about longer-term sustainability since the Department of Higher Education and Training is funding the programme for a specific period. I do hope, however, that the results of this initiative might contribute to a longer-term consideration.
Question: Will there be long-term interface between institutional candidates and your initiative? What if our candidates are already on the nGAP programme? Are we allowed to nominate them to this programme?
Response: We are looking at people with a proven level of success in publishing in respected journals, hence our preference for NRF-rated researchers. This means the initiative is not for beginners.
Comment: Please give some thought to merging institutional initiatives with this national one.
Response: We are especially looking at candidates at institutions that are less well-resourced and are not exposed to the kind of initiatives already on offer at places like UJ, Stellenbosch or WITS.
Question: What kind of support will the Future Professors Programme candidates be given while on the programme?
Response: We will put a mentorship system in place, in support of each scholar.
Question: In the interest of creating a balance between exceptionalism and broader exposure, will a community of practice be formed out of the chosen candidates, for them to share information and insights gained on this platform with others in the system who may not get opportunity to participate?
Response: I would call that platform a “College of Scholars.” We welcome such a sense of academic community very much.
Question: Is there a condition requiring the chosen candidates to return to their feeder institutions, post this intervention?
Response: There is no such condition in place, but I do appreciate the risks involved.
Comment: The USAf Board has on a number of occasions discussed new programmes initiated by the DHET. There is much discontent about funding initiatives top-sliced from the already limited funding available to universities. We have since tasked the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group to make an inventory of initiatives working to achieve various goals within the sector. There may be a need to also take yours into consideration as we explore creating synergy between all of these initiatives.
In conclusion, Professor Mthembu said any initiative seeking to build capacity at public institutions was welcome, especially taking into consideration the accusation laid at the door of South Africa’s public universities by the Higher Education Transformation Network, to the effect that they were not supporting transformation.