Training new academics is a complex challenge

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In last month’s Getting Ahead, Sean Muller quite rightly points out that “In academia there is often a remarkably laissez-faire attitude towards human-resource planning. Consequently, there is essentially no national coordination on the development of young academics for local universities and some departments lurch from one staffing crisis to another”, (“More PhDs are not the answer”, Mail & Guardian, September 7).

Muller goes on to say: “In many faculties little effort is made to identify promising students, mentor and provide them with an idea of the career path envisioned for them, ensure that adequate funding is available and encourage them to consider an academic career.”

Although we would agree with Muller that this is true of many faculties and institutions, it seems he is unaware of the proposal for a national programme to develop the next generation of academics for South African higher education that was submitted to the departments of higher education and training and science and technology in July last year. He also overlooks the various institutional programmes aimed at “growing their own timber” that, we would argue, are contributing to the sustainability of the academic project and the transformation of higher-education institutions.

Universities have to produce and retain a new generation of academics and thus transform the academic workforce. A transformed and more diverse higher-education system is necessary if the academy, through its mandates to produce and disseminate knowledge, is to address some of the most vexing issues facing South Africa and the world at large.

Most senior academic positions in historically white universities are now held by ageing white males who are due to retire within the next decade or so. It is thus an imperative for the academy to attract and retain particularly young blacks and women.

The confluence of larger, more socially and academically diverse classes, unsatisfactory student success and throughput rates and the pressure to publish and contribute to the transformation of South African society means that novice academics need to be inducted into the academy in much more structured and deliberate ways than has been the case in the past.

There is a growing realisation that the development of academics’ knowledge and skills in relation to teaching and community engagement requires the same deliberate nurturing that the development of research capacity has always enjoyed in some institutions. The “sink or swim” orthodoxy in relation to new staff joining academia is no longer tenable.

To contribute to the transformation of the academic workforce nationally and in recognition of the complexity of academic work, the vice-chancellors’ forum, Higher Education South Africa, in collaboration with representatives from a range of higher-education institutions, developed a proposal for a structured, nationally funded and co-ordinated endeavour to grow the next generation of academics at South African universities.

It is proposed that, in the first instance, 300 “next generation” posts are established and 300 academics are employed at institutions across the country through this project over a period of three years.

The national proposal draws on the experience of existing programmes designed to grow the next generation of academics, mostly funded by foreign donors. At the heart of such programmes is the intention to create nurturing and developmental contexts in which promising young academics, under the mentorship of outstanding senior academics in their disciplines, are provided with opportunities to become excellent all-round academics. With the guidance of mentors and heads of departments, the lecturers plan their career trajectories to ensure that they gain experience in relation to all these key academic roles.  

Of course, these programmes are not without their challenges. Drawing on our experience of programmes offered at Rhodes University for more than a decade, we mention the six most difficult challenges.

First, there is the thorny and sensitive issue of ensuring that the programmes are not stigmatised and the lecturers appointed are not viewed as deficient. Unqualified and overt support from the leadership in universities may help to reduce such negative perceptions.

Second is the need for rigorous recruitment and selection processes that lead to the appointment of lecturers who are poised to become intellectual leaders in their fields. Given the variable quality of universities and the graduates produced in South Africa, it may prove to be difficult, particularly in some fields or disciplines, to attract suitable people.  

Third, once these talented novice academics have been appointed, it is essential that their institutions create the conditions to nurture them and accelerate their growth as accomplished academics.

Although Muller’s arguments are compelling, we would argue that, for aspiring academics in almost any field, the learning that ensues from creating knowledge at PhD level is crucial for their ability to be the kinds of academics we would like to teach the future leaders of South Africa. However, we share Muller’s concern that some of our universities are ill-equipped to produce high-quality PhD graduates.

Fourth, the institutions in which the novice lecturers work therefore also need to be able to offer them the opportunities to grow into confident, competent, scholarly teachers — teachers who are able to design relevant curriculums, facilitate learning and assess students who come from increasingly diverse social, cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds.

Unfortunately, not all South African universities have the capacity or resources to offer lecturers such opportunities. To address this, the national proposal suggests cross-institutional partnership agreements.

A fifth challenge relates to identifying appropriate mentors for novice lecturers — mentors who not only possess disciplinary and institutional knowledge, but also have the appropriate disposition, the generosity to share their knowledge and experience with their mentees; mentors who are able and willing to contribute to the growth and development of a colleague without trying to mould her or him into images of themselves, thus reproducing the higher-education system.

Unfortunately, because of powerful neoliberal forces, many academics are highly competitive and more concerned with the “publish or perish” imperative. Finding ideal mentors, given the multiple demands on academics’ time, might not be easy.

Finally, having expended enormous resources, a further challenge, especially in some fields, is to retain these next-generation academics.

There are many possible reasons for this. For some, the culture of the institutions they are in is alienating and they leave because they do not feel at home. For others, despite Muller’s contention that “remuneration of South African academics is generous by international standards”, it is because they can earn bigger salaries in government or in the private sector and, in some cases, this is important because they are expected to support their extended family who sacrificed for their education.

In some institutions, these lecturers are not offered tenured posts after their initial contract because the universities have insufficient succession planning.

We believe a structured, well-supported programme can provide opportunities for new academics to be inducted into what can be a most rewarding and satisfying career, while at the same time contributing to the transformation of South African society.

  • Dr Lynn Quinn and Dr Jo-Anne Vorster work in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University. This article was published on Mail & Guardian.