South Africa faces the multiple challenges of transforming the racial and gender profile of its scholarly workforce, tackling a looming staff crisis as nearly half of its most senior academics retire in the coming decade, and growing academic numbers as higher education expands to achieve a 20% participation rate. Urgent interventions are required, says Professor Saleem Badat, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University.
Without action, he warned, South Africa's efforts to transform the social composition of its scholarly workforce will be undermined, academic quality will be debilitated along with the capacity to produce high quality graduates and knowledge, and their ability of universities "to contribute to development and democracy through a new generation of outstanding scholars committed to critical and independent scholarship and social justice will be hampered."
In a paper* presented to the University Leaders' Forum held in Accra, Ghana, last month Badat pointed out that South Africa's particular academic staffing problems stemmed from racism and patriarchy that were key features of its colonial and apartheid past and imprinted themselves on all aspects of social life, including higher education.
Post-apartheid, universities needed to confront two challenges - advancing redress and equity for black people and women; and producing and retaining a new generation of scholars. The two were concurrent and linked, Badat argued - new academics had to be trained and retained while simultaneously transforming the social composition of the academic workforce.
Some but not enough progress has been made on the demographic challenge.
When democracy was achieved in 1994, South Africa's academics were overwhelmingly white (83%) and male (68%). While black South Africans - Africans, Indians and 'coloureds' - constituted 89% of the population, they comprised only 17% of academics. Similarly, while women were in the majority, they held 31% of academic jobs. A dozen years later, significant advances had been made but inequalities remained stark, said Badat. In 2006, 62% of academics were white and 58% were male, while 38% were black and 42% were women.
There has been less success in producing a new generation of academics, and a crisis is upon South African universities.
Of a total of 15,319 permanent academics at universities, 4,083 - nearly 27% - are over 55 years old. On the basis of the current retirement age of 65, they will need to be replaced in the coming decade. Among professors and associate professors - the most highly qualified and experienced academics - nearly half are due to retire within the next 10 years.
These soon-to-retire academics are also the most productive researchers in universities, and are increasingly bearing responsibility for publishing, Badat pointed out. While in 1990 only one in five research articles were published by scientists over 50 years, by 2000 this age group was producing nearly half of all publications.
"The new generation of academics will also need to be equipped to discharge the responsibility of conducting research and publishing, so that the knowledge needs of South Africa are effectively met."
Meanwhile, ever more academics are required by an expanding university system as the government pushes to raise the participation rate in higher education from a current 16% to 20% by 2016 at the latest. "Also to be considered are the loss of academics to the public and private sectors, and loss due to emigration," said Badat.
Another dimension to the challenge is low production of postgraduates: in 2005, South African universities graduated 7,881 masters and 1,176 doctoral students, according to the Council on Higher Education. "While these graduates constitute an important pool of potential academics, not all or even most will seek academic careers. Indeed, it is generally understood that the current outputs of masters and doctoral graduates are sorely inadequate for South Africa's economic and social development and have to be urgently increased."
Difficulties in attracting and retaining academics are exacerbated by low salaries relative to the public and private sectors, Badat pointed out, and the differences in pay are worsening. "Consequently, the public and private sectors wield a powerful pull on masters and doctoral graduates and also current academics."
Racial inequalities linger on among postgraduate students. In 2005, according to the Council on Higher Education, 52% of masters graduates and 59% of doctoral graduates were white. Women comprised 45% of masters and 44% of doctoral graduates, and continued to be to be concentrated in the humanities and social sciences.
Also, one in five masters and a quarter of doctoral graduates from South African universities are international students, mostly (72% and 69% respectively) from other African countries.
"These graduates could represent a potential pool of a new generation of academics," Badat said, but there are two dilemmas: "One is the risk of a 'brain drain' that denudes other African countries of highly qualified graduates to the benefit of South Africa and its universities. The other is that the legislation related to employment equity in South Africa was recently amended to define only black and women South Africans as 'designated groups' that may be the beneficiaries of employment equity."
Universities face further challenges in improving low success rates among (particularly black) postgraduate students, and in ensuring that new generation academics are equipped to transform and develop universities, enhance their academic capabilities and improve institutional cultures that remain alienating to black and women academics.
While the problems of training and transforming the social composition of a new generation of scholars has been debated and is well understood in government, no "dedicated concerted and coordinated national initiatives have been designed and implemented nor have public financial resources been devoted to tackle the challenge", said Badat. Initiatives that exist have been implemented by individual universities and largely supported by donor funding.
"It is clear that with respect to the current social composition of the academic labour force and employment equity, South Africa has an immediate and serious challenge. It is also evident that with regard to the reproduction of a new generation of academics there is a looming and potentially grave further challenge," Badat concluded. "It is indisputable that urgent interventions are required on the part of the state and universities. A failure to invest in and cultivate a new generation of high quality academics will have far-reaching consequences."
* "Producing, Transforming the Social Composition of, and Retaining a New Generation of Academics: The Rhodes University Programme of Accelerated Development".
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