At the USAf-ACU (Universities SA–Association of Commonwealth Universities) symposium of 18-19 March, delegates generally agreed on the need for a more collaborative, eco-systemic approach to building the capacity of early career academics. Recommendations were made for changes at institutional, systemic, funding and policy levels.
At the institutional level, it was agreed that a more holistic approach to capacity development was needed and the focus should be broadened to include the entire student pipeline from undergraduate to post-doctoral level. The delegates underscored the importance of making an academic career an attractive option to undergraduate students. They also agreed that universities’ undergraduate curricula should facilitate student exposure to critical enquiry skill and knowledge-making through research projects to introduce them to the fundamentals of research, that is, statistical applications and research methodology, and inculcate a culture of research right from the start. From a funding perspective, it was agreed to put more emphasis on Honours level, recognising that this was the gateway to postgraduate study and a pipeline to academic careers.
Create a conducive culture for research
Institutions were urged to create a conducive research culture that aligned with the individual institutional context and goals, and was supported by policy. Institutional policies must define what is expected of an early career academic and put a management system in place in this regard. Delegates said policy formulation was also about taking a standpoint about the philosophy of teaching and learning and encouraging critical enquiry and the understanding that knowledge was always tentative. The delegates also saw a need for every institution to adopt a policy on academic mobility (inbound and outbound) to relieve the pressure on supervisory capacity and to ensure that their methods of capacity building for emerging academics responded to the changing nature of knowledge production. Institutions were urged to create such a climate on their campuses that emerging researchers and academics felt welcome and cared for.
The conference also recommended far greater focus on post-doctoral fellowships. Delegates recognised post-doctoral fellows as an under-utilised academic resource that was particularly well positioned for supervision and co-supervision. Secondly, they stated that international mobility was most viable in the post-doctoral period. They moved that this opportunity be leveraged to promote diversity of thinking and access to expertise outside the institution.
Institutions were urged to create cultures conducive to research; to create a climate on campuses that make researchers feel welcomed and supported, and that assures those who completed their postgraduate studies overseas that they are welcome to practise in this system. Photos: Courtesy of the University of Pretoria (left) and the Vaal University of Technology (right)
That said, institutions were urged to put policies in place which assured scholars who completed postgraduate studies overseas that there was a place for them to practise in South African universities; and that their research projects would be supported and sustained. Institutions must ensure that post-doctoral fellows do not fall through the cracks between students and staff. They were also encouraged to counteract the mindset around fellowships as springboards for better work elsewhere, for example by demonstrating the impact that researchers could have on societal challenges, and the fulfilment they could get by continuing to work in academia.
The symposium also agreed that the narrative of capacity development should address both academic and researcher career development, recognising the importance of teaching and research as equally important core functions of universities. This was also to address the tendency to remove high-end researchers from teaching, which was increasingly leading to overloading lecturers and creating a perception that research was a more prestigious track, much to the detriment of teaching, and to public universities in general.
Delegates also recommended to institutions to implement measures to address the increasing disillusionment of young scholars with the existing research performance culture and consider a differentiated research performance appraisal system for emerging scholars.
Joint strategies, pulling together and sharing expertise including mentors are the way to go
At the systemic level, the delegates generally agreed to identify sector-wide strategies to intensify doctoral training. Consensus was reached that by working together, institutions and funders, including the state, could create an environment enabling the pooling of local and global resources so that existing training interventions and funding could be aligned for optimal and lasting impact.
To that end, universities agreed to promote greater interdisciplinary networking and collaboration on programmes and interventions, and the sharing of expertise across faculties. Given the unequal higher education environment, it was agreed that institutions must commit to pulling together to provide individualised emerging researcher support where it was needed the most.
Among other interventions, a suggestion was made to explore creating communities of practice around specific societal challenges and strategic research areas including climate change. The idea was to facilitate collaboration and networking among early career researchers, but also to involve in the networks established and even retired academics at national level. Delegates were of the view that communities of practice help to mitigate the institutional hierarchies that block conversations around research and therefore speak directly to some of the obstacles experienced by lecturers, such as lack of mentoring. This is one of the main impediments to research highlighted in the Emerging Researchers’ (2018) report by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST).
For purposes of supporting this collaboration, Universities South Africa (USAf) was seen to have a significant role to play in establishing communities of practice and any other system-wide interventions, while the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) was recognised as being better positioned to facilitate exchanges and engagements in the international space. It was also pointed out that collaboration need not entail physical meetings, but rather that institutions use virtual networking platforms made possible by digitisation across the system.
The symposium recognised that South Africa’s post-doctoral fellows pool was too small to yield a significant new generation of academics/ researchers at the desired pace. It also admitted that supervisory capacity was the biggest impediment to expanding a larger generation of PhDs and Masters students. For purposes of advancing lecturers, delegates felt that the simplest way to create time for research was lecturer relief, where a retired professor could be invited to lecture for a semester or so while the regular lecturer pursued their research. For purposes of strengthening national supervisory capacity, they recommended exploring what it would take to tap more systemically into European and other systems. A suggestion was made to bring in visiting professors to focus on post-graduate supervision while also building teams of researchers, as was already being done at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Parallel to importing supervisory capacity, the conference suggested that South Africa could put interventions in place to scale up its own post-doctoral fellowship pool while also bolstering scholar mobility to other institutions to access world class equipment and networks, with a view to return and plough back quality expertise into the national system. The symposium added that global partnerships formed along the way must be equitable and be geared to solving supervisory capacity shortages. Split-site doctoral training programmes were suggested as one way in which South Africa’s capacity could be strengthened while minimising brain drain.
The symposium also recommended that appropriate attention be afforded to building mentoring capacity in the system. The delegates emphasised the importance of developing an ethos and culture of mentorship that was centred on the needs of both the mentor and mentee and came from the heart. The delegates also moved that a database of available mentors be established and shared across the system. Scaling up existing mentorship training interventions such as those being offered at the University of Johannesburg, at Stellenbosch, at universities of Cape Town and Pretoria was also encouraged. USAf was requested to explore possibilities in this regard. Delegates also acknowledged that technology made virtual mentoring and supervision possible. It was further suggested that the ACU could assist by linking mentees with mentors across university systems.
Research funding and partnerships should seek to respond to the local context and respond to developmental challenges
In view of declining research funding, the symposium urged the higher education sector to review the traditional practice of partnering with government and the private sector purely for funding purposes. They advocated for a model based on the notions of co-creation, co-development and co-responsibility to avoid duplication in the system, but even more importantly, to enable early career researchers to participate in projects that responded to both local and global development challenges.
In this regard, the ACU was deemed to be well-placed to broker conversations, both at the local level and globally. Locally, the delegates said ACU could play a significant role in facilitating and enabling greater collaboration among its member institutions, including mobilising and influencing funders for early career researcher programmes. At the global level, the conference said, considering the vast research investment made by big multinationals in Europe and the United States, the ACU could bring the multinationals and the institutions together to explore spreading serious research funding across institutions in the broader Commonwealth of Nations. Creating multinational research teams was seen as a by-product of these envisaged engagements. The delegates also saw the ACU facilitating engagements between South African institutions and the ACU network of Human Resources Directors as a means of establishing mechanisms and policies to promote academic mobility and sharing of supervisory capacity.
Policy changes to post-doctoral funding system required
Taking into cognizance the existing impediments in South Africa’s legal framework to participation in post-doctoral fellowships (an employed academic may not become a post-doctoral fellow), the symposium called upon USAf to rigorously engage the National Treasury, the DHET and the South African Revenue Services for changes to the regulations which stand in the way of SA scholars competing in the post-doctoral space. The need to continue earning an income while doing post-doctoral research was brought up as a major constraint to research output. The symposium acknowledged that some of those who pursued doctoral and post-doctoral studies had families to support and that the level of funding should be adequate to meet this important dimension in the lives of these researchers.
Ultimately, the symposium was moving for a radical review of funding for post-doctoral fellows to make it viable for South African lecturers to also pursue post-doctoral fellowships to grow academically and generate added value to the system. These proposed changes to funding protocols, it was observed, could also allow the system to introduce flexible teaching relief to early career academics to conduct research full-time in pursuit of PhD qualifications. Additional research funding could also enable HDIs and UoTs to participate in niche research areas.
The way forward
In the end, the symposium delegates agreed that there was capacity in the system that just needed to be better co-ordinated. For instance, capacity building initiatives were available across the system. More effort was needed to achieve greater synergies and partnerships. To that end, there was need to create a portal of available training initiatives. There was a need to conduct a comprehensive mapping exercise of all existing funding instruments so that a database could be developed and gaps could be identified and addressed. There was also a need to create a national database of retired academics, with their areas of expertise, as an additional training and mentorship resource for emerging researchers.
In his closing remarks, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at Rhodes University assured the gathering that this was not just another talk-shop. He said every input and recommendation made to address the plight of emerging academics would be attended to – “all in our quest to build a world that is more just, more humane, compassionate, more equitable and more inclusive; a world free of inequality and poverty and in which everyone can contribute to a common good. Higher Education has a role to play in creating the society that we aspire to. Future generations must inherit a better world than the one we inherited from those who came before us.”
Dr Mabizela expressed hope that all the delegates were leaving UJ “with a renewed sense of hope and optimism that tomorrow will be a better day than today. May we continue in the struggle for building a better world.”
Up to 70 delegates comprising vice-chancellors; their deputies; senior directors and managers responsible for developing and maintaining the research enterprise at their institutions attended the symposium. The delegates were representing 20 of South Africa’s 26 public universities. Also represented were the Departments of Higher Education & Training (DHET); Science and Technology (DST); the National Research Foundation (NRF) and at least one institution in Zimbabwe. The Association of Commonwealth Universities had deployed four officials including its Chief Executive Officer and Secretary-General.
As envisioned by USAf and the ACU, the two-day event succeeded in identifying new interventions and projects aimed at supporting early career academics in South Africa.
Meanwhile, USAf and the ACU are set to follow-up on the engagement areas appropriate to their respective mandates as a way of taking this conversation forward.