Facing an ageing professors research productivity cliff

South African research is on the rise but is “edging towards a demographic cliff”, warned Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor last week. While in 1994 – the year of democracy – one in 10 credited academic papers were by over 50-year-olds, today that age group produces half of all papers.

Back in 2011 a report by the vice-chancellors’ group Higher Education South Africa warned that half of South Africa’s professors and associate professors were due to retire in the next decade. “This is worrying because of their research output,” said Pandor.

The question now is whether a plethora of ‘next generation’ interventions will produce enough young researchers sufficiently quickly to avoid the reversal of an upward trend in the quantity and quality of research publications.

“It has to be said that we have managed this increase without expanding the number of researchers,” Pandor told an Association of Commonwealth Universities and SARIMA – Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association – conference held in Johannesburg from 10-14 May.

Under the theme of “Research and Innovation for Global Challenges”, the event attracted more than 470 people from 44 countries in the Commonwealth and beyond.

Research productivity

Pandor said that South Africa’s publication output had grown substantially since 1994 and especially since 2004. The number of journal publications by South Africans increased by on average 10% a year from 2003-12 – an average growth of around 624 publications a year.

“This growth is much more rapid than the world average, resulting in a steady increase in percentage share of world journal publications from 0.49% in 2003 to 0.73% in 2012,” she added, citing the National Advisory Council on Innovation.

“I was thinking about the research productivity of elderly white males this week when I read in Nature about a debate raging about retirement in the United States academy. The debate is about whether scientists should retire at 65 or whether they should go on like judges and politicians.

“The evidence appears to be against those who want to go on. The gist of the big-data analysis of scientific papers in specific fields is that scientists are most innovative in their youth. It stands to reason when you think about it.

“It makes me wonder what these elderly white males are doing when they are in control of research monies and other scholarly perks. So we have acted,” said Pandor.

Earlier this year the Department of Higher Education and Training introduced a ‘next generation’ initiative in which 150 young academics will get permanent, initially government-funded posts in universities, with 80% of them being black African women.

Last week Dr Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training, said during his budget speech that he had recently approved the Staffing South Africa’s Universities Framework – “a comprehensive approach to building capacity and developing future generations of academics and to increase the number of highly capable black and women academics at all levels.”

There are many initiatives underway, in individual universities as well as donor-funded and other programmes, supporting PhD training and young researchers. But even when fast-tracking, it takes time to develop world-class researchers.

Although extending the retirement age of academics appears not to be on the cards, no doubt universities will find ways to retain the most research-productive among them, as the South African system rewards academics and universities financially – and generously – for journal publication.

Rise of African universities

Pandor called on African countries to invest more in universities and to build and strengthen higher education systems “in ways that genuinely contribute to economic and political development and the alleviation of poverty and disease”.

In recent years there had been growing demand for higher education in Africa, with more and more students seeking access to institutions both on the continent and internationally.

“This increase has often stretched institutions beyond capacity – leading inadvertently to the proliferation of private higher education providers. The proliferation of private providers has raised new debates around issues of quality and relevance of educational programmes.”

Another sign of increased demand for access to higher education was student outflow from the continent to universities in developed countries. Changes in infrastructures and capacity across the world partially explained the rapid growth of international student mobility.

Traditionally, the majority of mobile students came from the less developed countries and 80% of these studied in the OECD countries, said Pandor.

“Other directions of student flow are now emerging, such as mobility within Commonwealth countries and South-South or North-South flows. The reasons for this shift include cost factors, increased competition in the market, and skills shortages.

Pandor said South Africa had benefitted from increased student mobility “and we intend to step up efforts to attract postgraduate students and postdoctoral scientists to South Africa”.

In 2000, there were 60,000 foreign students at South African universities. “Last year there were 90,000 out of a university student population of 850,000. Put another way, nearly one in eight students is a foreigner,” Pandor continued.

“International students, postgraduates and researchers bring tremendous benefits to South Africa and they make an enormous contribution to the intellectual vibrancy and diversity of our educational institutions.”