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Transformation is an integral part of decolonising higher education

Since the announcement by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, to establish a Ministerial Task Team (MTT) to look into why there are so few black professors at South African universities, there have been numerous views expressed in the public discourse about possible reasons for the shortage of black academics at professorship level. There has been a general embrace of the investigation particularly from black academics, researchers and progressive people alike.

Although there is a sense that there are some mischievous activities going on our faculties and schools that deter black academics from attaining full professorship such as gatekeeping or other exclusionary practices, there is currently no reliable or evidence based research that supports this perception. There has also been a view that black people generally do not go on to complete postgraduate studies due to the inclination to work and thus support families and other issues such as black tax. Maybe the MTT will put to bed all these issue's and come up with a clear human resource development plan to transform the demographic makeup of academic staff of universities.

The problem however is much bigger than just looking into the "low proportion of black professors" as it were. This problem needs to be addressed in a systematic manner as this challenge is far more complex and impacts not only on “Blacks” in general but affects mostly Black African South Africans including women and people with disabilities.

In investigating this phenomenon, one need to first look at the pipeline that feeds into full professorship, that is, the number of permanent academic staff with doctoral degrees. Research conducted by the Council for Higher Education (CHE) which was released at the start of Ministers` first term of office showed that only a third of full time academics at the country`s universities had a doctoral degree. The number varies from university to university with some university having up to 50% of their academic staff at doctoral level whilst others have less than 30%. The Historically Advantaged Institutions (HAI) such as Wits, Rhodes and UCT accounted for the largest proportion of academic staff with doctoral degrees whilst your Historically Disadvantaged Institutions (HDIs) particularly Universities of Technology (UOT), accounted for the lowest proportion of academic staff with doctoral degrees. Having only a third of academics with doctoral degrees in the system implies that the proportion or pool of young Black African South African and female academics can only be smaller. In investigating this challenge, a distinction should also be made between “Black African” academics who are of foreign origin and those who South African citizens as the former can disguise the numbers. Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) data shows that there are 489 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) Black African South African academics under the age of 45 who have a doctoral degree. This number is however higher, if you include those who are part time. This is the potential pool of academics who can practically speaking, become professors over the next three to five years. Additionally, this pool of academics can also serve as a key source of information for the MTT regarding the obstacles they face in becoming professors.

Although the DHET and other entities involved in higher education have initiated several programmes aimed at transforming the profile of academic staff at universities, these programmes have not, broadly speaking, been very successful in getting South African academics who are Black African, female and persons with disabilities, to become professors.

Thus, the onus to reverse this issue is more urgent than ever before. If we don't, we can only dream of a truly decolonised university system that has a curriculum and value system that embraces African ideals. After all its Black African academics and researchers who should be at centre of curriculum renewal. This thinking resonates strongly with students, who have joined and subsequently led the call for transformation of academic staff over the last few years. They been demonised in some quarters for bringing up the notion of a "decolonised university" but the issue of decolonisation is not just about the curriculum that is taught in the classroom. My sense is that it’s much bigger than that. It is also about who stands in front of the students; who develops or writes the curriculum content in the textbooks themselves; and how African ideals and thinking are infused into the curriculum. There is absolutely no contradiction in the decolonisation of the university system and structure on one hand, including its academic staff composition and curriculum; and continuous research and knowledge production as well as the development of quality students who can contribute meaningfully to the economy on the other.

As the MTT embarks on this complex piece of work, there will three key elements or issues that need to be considered; the first is the anecdotal issues which although controversial will need to looked at quite closely; secondly, how the available data on academic profiles of universities is used for developing or at least taking the current doctoral level academics to the next level and looking at the issues raised by students regarding transformation of academic staff.

The MTT would have failed in its task if it does not come up with a clearly articulated, practical and “unapologetic” human resource development plan that will fundamentally transform the university system in the next five years and beyond.

Source:  News24

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