Diversity, culture and support key to HE transformation

A review of equity and transformation initiatives in three South African universities, two decades after the advent of democracy, has highlighted the importance of diversity among staff, institutional cultures and support for emerging researchers. Strategies are needed to tackle the key challenge of increasing the output of quality postgraduates.

The review was conducted by the Cape Higher Education Consortium or CHEC – a body comprising the four public universities of the Western Cape and aimed at strengthening higher education through institutional and academic collaboration – and authored by its CEO Nasima Badsha and consultant Sharman Wickham.

It was commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York with the goals of examining efforts by itself and other American foundations over a decade to promote equity and transformation at the leading universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand and KwaZulu-Natal, and to retrieve lessons learned.

From 2005, the Carnegie Corporation funded staff development, postgraduate training and institutional climate interventions focused on equity and transformation that contributed to the universities’ institutional strategies for transformation, which were aimed at overcoming the lingering legacies of apartheid in higher education.

The review incorporated findings of a 2011 review for the Ford Foundation and engagements with representatives of two other United States funders, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and Atlantic Philanthropies. The study also took a focused look at the three universities through documentary analysis and interviews with role players.

Undertaken in 2012-13, a draft of the Review of Initiatives in Equity and Transformation in Three Universities in South Africa was released in December last year, followed by a consultative process and a final report that was published last Friday 22 August.

Lessons learned fed into a CHEC policy brief also released last Friday, titled Support for Building the Next Generation of Academics in South Africa and aimed at informing government departments, research foundations, universities and donors.

The main lessons from the review, Nasima Badsha told University World News, were “the importance of increasing the diversity of staff in higher education alongside approaches to transform institutional research cultures".

“It also highlights the benefits of comprehensive support to individual postgraduate students and emerging researchers.” While the US foundations’ activities focused on the humanities and social sciences, its findings are relevant to other fields.

The backdrop

With national and institutional targets being set to increase postgraduate student enrolments, CHEC argued, strategies were urgently needed that responded to the key challenge of growing quality graduate output in ways that were equitable and responsive to building sustainable research capacities.

South Africa’s National Development Plan proposed that by 2030:
  • • The percentage of academics with PhDs should be increased from 34% to over 75%.
  • • Over 25% of total higher education enrolments must be at postgraduate level.
  • • Universities must produce more than 5,000 PhDs per year – against 1,420 in 2010.
  • • The number of graduate, postgraduate and first-rate scientists must be doubled.
  • • The number of African and women postgraduates, especially PhDs, must be increased.
  • • All forms of discrimination must be eliminated and a welcoming learning and research environment created.
The numerical targets have been criticised as unrealistic in the face of major constraints identified as: lack of infrastructure; limited supervision expertise; limited funding and government’s failure to reach its target of 1% of GDP spent on research and development; quite uncompetitive academic salaries; and alienating institutional cultures for black and women academics.

Nevertheless, there is wide agreement that rapidly growing the number of PhD graduates is crucial not only for equity and transformation reasons but also to very quickly produce a new generation of academics.

South Africa has a rapidly ageing academic workforce – in less than a decade over 3,000 or one fifth of permanent instruction staff will retire including 32% of professors and 17% of associate professors, said the review. “The country is soon to lose almost half of its most experienced and highly qualified academics,” threatening research output.

Policy propositions

The authors asked two questions in order to crystalise the review findings into policy ideas – what enhances individual students’ success and encourages them to consider an academic career; and how support may be optimised to reach more emerging researchers, increase diversity and representivity in universities, and transform institutional and research cultures?

There were “no quick fixes” to meeting challenges in higher education – producing the next generation of academics, ensuring equity and encouraging transformation – but the CHEC policy brief presented 10 important propositions.

1- Comprehensive funding packages
Comprehensive funding packages that support the full costs of study should be provided in order to optimise training and development opportunities for students and emerging scholars. There should be minimal levels of financial support for masters and PhD students.

The review for the Ford Foundation found that multiple funding sources were often used to support postgraduate students. One interviewee pointed out that a shift from a ‘thin’ model of support (supervisor and student) to a ‘thick’ one (many different forms of support) “required an exponential increase in funding”.

For funding packages to grow postgraduate numbers, there should be: clearer alignment between the goals of government departments; sustained collaboration between universities and the National Research Foundation; and partnerships between universities and funders based on a shared conceptualisation of equity and transformation and how initiatives would contribute. Opportunities for partners to share understandings, experiences and data were key.

2- Supervision
The Carnegie, Ford and other reviews suggested that traditional one-on-one supervision was a “critical central feature of the postgraduate student experience”, even in programmes that had other elements and, according to research by Nico Cloete and Johann Mouton, especially in the first year of study when “the clear articulation of expected outcomes is critical”.

“Good support from supervisors provides for the identification of clear and viable research questions together with relevant literature and research methodologies.” Highlighted again and again, said the policy brief, was the need for thoughtful input at all stages of study – but particularly the initial and final stages, and involving the synthesis of data and thesis writing.

“Ensuring quality supervision goes hand in hand with the retention of senior academic staff. The need to consider the incentivisation and acknowledgement of these academics has been highlighted in a number of reviews,” says the review.

3- Mentorship
Supervision is enhanced by mentors, who usually deal with non-academic issues that impact on academic progress. Different models of mentoring were identified, variously involving more senior students or current and past staff members identified by the students.

Acclimatisation of students in the academic milieu and the accumulation of cultural capital played a key role in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, said the policy brief, and enhanced the quality of the student experience and academic outcomes.

4- Internal learning communities
Many postgraduate initiatives reviewed offered internal learning communities, often comprised of peers and other staff and either formal – retreats, workshops, seminars – or informal and involving interaction with peers in dedicated spaces.

“Learning from a range of other researchers (both peers and academics) assists individual students to appreciate different approaches to research within scientific communities. They are better able to identify where their own interests and projects ‘fit’ within the broader landscape enabling them to develop perspective,” CHEC found.

5- Exposure to external networks
The exposure of students and young academics to external networks including funding for travel to conferences was extremely important, said the brief, providing opportunities to speak about their research and gain a deeper understanding of their field, of universities and of careers available to them. There was no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, with different elements needing to be “carefully tailored to specific contexts”.

6- Creative institutional leadership
Initiatives “should rest on a clear articulation and sharing of wider institutional goals”, CHEC found. Creative leaders could work to identify priorities, approaches and strategies relevant to their institutional contexts.

For example, Cape Town’s decision to foreground “the knowledge project” and encourage an ‘Afropolitan’ approach to research was seen as “contextually bound and more responsive than the traditional ‘equity appointment approach’”.

“In other words, one of the key roles of creative leadership is to articulate a conception of how individual research development opportunities are related to changing research approaches (for example, more interdisciplinary, focused on Africa etc) and begin to change the environment within which core activities take place.”

7- Further development of successful programmes
Where possible, the review suggests, institutional leaders’ initiatives should consider building on existing programmes that have been ‘bedded down’ and-or tried and tested. All three universities in the Carnegie review had built on earlier initiatives.

Coherent research programmes in niche areas or fields of study were needed, with research leaders encouraging a research culture within a department “rather than expecting this to filter down from the top”. A strong research culture in a department assisted in building a pipeline of prospective postgraduates.

8- Focused funding of fewer initiatives
The reviews suggested that focused funding of a smaller number of initiatives – especially if some of these were new – was likely to yield greater success than spreading funding over a range of initiatives. Two of the universities in the Carnegie review had been unable to implement and sustain all of the planned initiatives and some were dropped.

9- Management, coordination and communication
The reviews suggested a need for the centralisation of some functions and decentralisation of others. A balance was needed.

While it was important to have a central coordinating office with a stable dedicated staff team to assist in shaping initiatives and monitoring progress, it was also necessary to have ‘champions’ – academics and administrators – to work within initiatives themselves.

“For this combined and complementary approach to work, the necessary structures and good communication channels need to be in place. Effective work relationships evolve over time as the roles of the various players become better understood.”

Rapid turnovers of staff could cause problems, as could the involvement of too many role-players, and buy-in from deans and heads of department and their involvement in selecting equity appointments was crucial to the success of projects. “The findings point to the need for good communication channels between all role-players.”

10- Building institutional and research cultures
Research development opportunities were located within broader institutional cultures, said the policy brief, but it was also useful for transformation strategies to target different levels within the institution.

“While some strategies may focus on the ways in which the broader institutional culture may be shaped and experienced (for example issues of class, race and gender), others may choose to focus on different approaches that might be taken in knowledge generation (for example interdisciplinary approaches, research for Africa etc).

“These strategies are not mutually exclusive, but their goals may need to be re-prioritised from time to time and projects and activities funded from a range of sources.”

Investment approaches

The four American foundations, the review found, had shown “remarkable commitment to strengthening higher education and promoting equitable social change in South Africa”, especially through advancing postgraduate opportunities for black people and women.

Carnegie’s strategy aimed to support higher education transformation by “enhancing the recruitment, academic development and retention of black and women academics, alongside a focus on promoting transformative institutional cultures”. The three universities received support to the total value of US$12.4 million for initiatives from 2005-13.

The Carnegie Corporation also supported institutional strengthening at six universities elsewhere in Africa: Makerere in Uganda, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana and Obafemi Awolowo, Jos, and Amadu Bello in Nigeria.

The Ford Foundation made grants totalling more than US$5 million from 2005-10 for some 17 projects under its Next Generation of Academics programme. Most projects were located in a broad range of institutions, and Ford also supported the vocational college sector and the interface between colleges and higher education.

Among other things, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation supported eight universities and focused on grants to nurture the next generation of scholars and to advance research and teaching in the humanities. Of 500 PhD graduates supported, 400 were black and more than half women. In 2012, Mellon had a budget of US$6 million per annum and reported an investment of US$38.5 million between 2000 and 2010.

Atlantic Philanthropies funded equity development in higher education from 1994 to 2002 but then changed focus and is now believed to be winding down activities.

The review found that the US foundations’ focus on the humanities was crucial in South Africa at a time when the government was concentrating on building capacity in science, engineering and technology.

While the beneficiaries of support had been black people and women, with a few exceptions funding was concentrated at leading research universities. CHEC said this resonated with the recommendation of a major PhD study that scaling up of PhD production should be through institutions with existing capacity and PhD track records.

In most cases, funding had gone beyond scholarships and allowed for rich institutional engagement with the range of factors that contribute to success in postgraduate studies. “This has, in turn, contributed to the development of best practice in postgraduate studies.”