Becoming a professor at a time of decolonisation, marketism

The term ‘professor’ implies something more than a status one receives for having spent a specific agreed-upon number of years in academia. It implies that very specific activities by an academic over a longer and sustained period have brought about quality interventions with tangible societal impact and a contribution to human knowledge.

This constructs a ‘professor’ as a being, a persona with very specific attributes, rather than a mere title.

Some questions come to the fore in the literature: What purpose(s) do (or should) professors serve, and what is the basis of their distinction?

The intention in this article is to contribute to the ongoing conversations about the role of a professor in higher education.

This discussion takes place in a context in which almost every sector in the Western world is challenged by the need to juggle the rigidity of the ideology of neoliberalism, and the commitment to ensure its consequences do not affect people’s mental health and general wellness.

Therefore, in discussing the subject of becoming a professor, I am careful not to reflect on this role in ways that are laced by what Nigel Blake and his co-authors call the “hegemony of instrumental reason” in the book The universities we need: Higher Education after Dearing.

This hegemony tends to impose the criterion of economic usefulness to measure success. Within academia, the knowledge-generation project, its dissemination, leadership, as well as community engagement, cannot be measured in the same way we measure productivity in a shoe factory.

The discussion also takes place in the South African setting, a context in which I have enacted my role as an academic since the late 1990s, and where there is a general political fractiousness and an undoubted awareness by all of us of social and material inequality.

This broader societal uneasiness has spilled over into higher education. Its manifestation has been seen through an open and strong calling into question of the settled norms and epistemologies characteristic of universities.

While this calling into question of the obvious inequalities that still persist has emerged mainly from students, some academics are grappling with it and call out the constraints that continue to undermine such calls.

Hence, as higher-education institutions (HEIs) operate within a climate in which the pressure from market forces co-exists with deafening calls for the transformation and decolonisation of institutional cultures, how can we not talk about becoming a professor?

Enacting a professorial role within a neoliberal model

The effects of the ideology of neoliberalism on universities referred to earlier have manifested, among other ways, through an imposition of a managerialist ethos as well as knowledge commodification.

Studies on the extent to which this neoliberal era has negatively affected higher education and the being of a professor abound.

Owing to this seeming onslaught by problematic market- and economic-usefulness discourses, the knowledge production industries such as universities are subjected to cultures ‘strange’ to us: annual performance management, the quantification of outputs, the need to penalise what is seen as disobedience at the end of each year.

Writing about neoliberalism as an ideology, Lee Parker in 2011 points out that it favours “... self-discipline (with punishment for lapses), self-reliance and the accompanying pursuit of self-interest”.

This value system would make sense if universities were producers of cars, shoes or sausages – countable items that are easily discernible at the end of each day, week and month. Also, it assumes level playing fields both at a global level in which HEIs of the world compete and at the micro level within individual HEIs.

A level playing field?

In my capacity as a line manager in various capacities within and across different HEIs since 2009, I have witnessed how, at micro level within HEIs, the playing field is not level.

Indeed, the personal circumstances of individual staff members within my units have been neither the same nor equal. For some, personal circumstances enabled them to thrive within the neoliberal culture because of the leverage to access material, technological and emotional resources, as well as the institutional knowledge owing to their longevity with the institution.

Other individuals either did not have access to such resources or what the institutions could offer was grossly insufficient. So, the latter rarely receive bonuses and-or succeed when promotion opportunities arise.

In other words, the value system imposed upon us by the neoliberal ethos seems not to take seriously the fact that it is often individual circumstances that either enable or constrain delivery on certain expectations.

For the most committed intellectuals and scholars, particularly the professoriate, this gradual erosion of the culture of collegiality and unconditional support for one another remains one of the hurtful experiences.

Under pressure to deliver outputs in the same way a person working in a bakery needs to, some professors have become invisible, often cognitively absent at senate meetings, though present in body, with little to no sustained and scholarly resistance to the erosion of the culture of defending, supporting, and sustaining the knowledge project.

Indeed, there is even no time to thoroughly read long documents that serve at senate meetings, apply our minds, and engage in defence of genuine institutional care, staff wellness and sincere support for younger academics.

The urgency is focused on chasing the next publication, the completion of a research grant application to ensure a successful National Research Foundation re-rating, while there is a mechanical pushing of students to complete postgraduate study research at the expense of quality and impactful knowledge.

For these reasons, I had to critically “reflect on my complicity in and my attempts to temper the effects of alienating, market-driven university discourse and culture” in my capacity as line manager.

Among other things, I created a two-phased process for a publication output by my staff to enable a balance between ensuring their mental wellness and generating a dignified and impactful knowledge contribution.

Over a two-year period, every academic had to commit to delivering evidence for the conceptualisation of an idea and data-generation strategy, as well as a successful ethics application (phase 1), and then in the second year to providing evidence for writing up and submitting (phase 2) the knowledge generated. Only in the third year was I expecting an output in the form of a publication with a subsidy-generating academic journal.

This is perhaps the reason I still hold a view that individuals who have (currently are) actively worked(ing) and contributed(ing) to knowledge generation make humane and good academic leaders and managers. I also think they have the skills and aptitude to subvert and-or manage wisely the consequences of the neoliberal-era onslaught on the academic project.

Research seems to indicate that, within a context where a neoliberal model to run operations is in place, the majority of the professoriate within various academic entities receive unfavourable reflections on their contribution to supporting upcoming, younger cohorts of staff within academia.

Various experiences by the university community in different contexts reveal the need for the deepened re-opening of conversations on what role a professor should play in a field of study. In her 2013 study on ‘Professors as academic leaders’, Linda Evans reports on the extent to which, and in what ways, academics, researchers and university teachers think professors should be providing academic leadership to junior colleagues. Here are some of the responses:

The most outstanding professors with which I’ve worked (regrettably the minority) are those that lead by example through engagement with the discipline. More importantly, though, has been their commitment or desire to engage with staff: supporting, inspiring, mentoring and developing them. With many others, a professorship seems to have had the opposite effect, leading to non-engagement and protectionism of their own research interest or external recognition..

In expressing what I would describe as one of the symptoms of the consequences of subjecting HEIs to individual rankings, annual performance management culture and ratings by international agencies, one of the study participants noted:

Some of our professors are preoccupied with their own image outside the institute and are not really interested in what the ‘little’ people in the institution need, whether it be in terms of career or personal issues. Even when they listen to you they give the impression of being concerned, but when you don’t get the result, you know that it was just a pretence on their part.

Indeed, this is not a surprising reflection. In a climate in which success is measured by providing evidence that one is better than others, a professorial contribution takes meaningful shape only if there is something in it for the professor, as Suriamurthee Moonsamy Maistry writes in a 2012 paper.

The urgently needed academic leadership by and contribution from the larger sections of the professoriate in higher education, therefore, remain small.

In a postcolonial, post-apartheid and post-conflict society like South Africa, these thoughts on the role a professor could play are relevant.

They are, in fact, timely if one considers the fact that the majority of the professoriate is ageing and soon to retire, and is currently supposed to mentor and support an increasingly younger, female, and mainly black cohort of new academics.

Traces of coloniality

A possible dilemma with this expectation for the ageing professoriate is arguably that most of the fields of study most professors have worked in have serious traces of coloniality.

By this, I mean most fields of study in which the soon-to-retire professoriate has worked still hold undeclared yet powerful mindsets that see Euro-American worldviews as superior to other worldviews.

While I am not at all arguing that Euro-American knowledge and the traditions accompanying it should necessarily be thrown out I am, however, insisting that, within our fields of study, it would be prudent for the current professoriate to also draw from (or at least point younger academics to) different knowledge traditions to support their academic trajectories.

The world is certainly larger than Europe and America, and we, therefore, cannot confine the next generation of knowledge producers to northern hemisphere epistemologies only.

The implication of this suggestion raises a question: to what extent has the majority of the current and-or soon-to-retire professoriate willingly and successfully embraced and, indeed, begun to work towards, drawing from alternative and-or indigenous knowledge traditions from the Middle East, Asia or Africa?

If the professoriate is to mentor and offer academic leadership to a younger cohort of future knowledge producers, how do we ensure that this process necessarily involves a deliberate countering of the colonial, gendered, racialised and discriminatory perspectives that have characterised various knowledge fields for centuries?

These are important questions if our commitment as a country is to enter the global stage from our own perspectives, drawn from longstanding knowledge traditions that have sustained the continent and our country for centuries.

The professoriate, in particular, has a big role to play in ensuring this.

In the next section, I share some thoughts on the nature of the role a professor could possibly play if the commitment to contribute to transforming and decolonising knowledge-generation and dissemination is to be realised.

Role in transforming and decolonising higher education

As is reflected in some of my earlier academic outputs in academic journals and conferences, in the early years of my career I was persuaded that it is only by making explicit disciplinary discourses to all students that we will enable epistemological access.

In my journey to becoming a professor, however, I have since realised that I was, in fact, omitting to ask the most critical questions. These questions include: to whose epistemology was I so committed to enable access?

Epistemologies that are influenced and shaped by whose worldviews? In whose language was such access being facilitated? Whose interests were going to be served by successfully enabling such access?

Finally, since written texts (to the exclusion of oral ones) are seen within Western hegemony as the only medium for curriculum knowledge, what price were students whose backgrounds are predominantly oral paying as I was enabling epistemological access? As I will attempt to show in this section, a shift has occurred in my thinking.

Part of this shift has had to do with calls for the decolonisation of the curriculum that have received much-needed traction.

There are growing conversations within the field of education on the subject of educational theory and decolonising the curriculum that link these broader discussions within the social sciences.

There has been growth in this area in the field of education. What appears to have been developing rather slowly in the field of education, however, is scholarship on theorising teaching and learning from a decolonial lens.

This has produced what can be referred to as the ‘Western hegemony’ of knowledge on theorising teaching and learning. In most fields in higher education, one knowledge system has become dominant and has ignored the value of and-or suppressed other knowledge systems.

This hegemony is sometimes justified, or perhaps defended, through the globalisation rhetoric, which I describe elsewhere as a tenet of neoliberal ideology to which even the self-professed critical thinkers within academia voluntarily surrender their academic freedom.

Some of my research has attempted to show that, in most post-colonies, both the globalisation and-or internationalisation rhetoric has been conveniently used as camouflage for ‘coloniality’. In clarifying this concept, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni posits that:

Coloniality must not be confused with colonialism. It survived the end of direct colonialism. In post colonies it continues to affect the lives of people, long after direct colonialism and administrative apartheid have been dethroned. What, therefore, needs to be understood is not just the “not yet uhuru” postcolonial experience, but the invisible vampirism of technologies of imperialism and colonial matrices of power that continue to exist in the minds, lives, languages, dreams, imaginations, and epistemologies of modern subjects in Africa and the entire Global South.

The understated negative effects of the power of coloniality on theories about learning and teaching, on the supervision of masters-degree and doctoral research, as well as on academic leadership by the professoriate, mean that the scope for revisiting the professorial role in our context is wider than we can imagine.

My view is that most of what we consider to be scholarly professorial knowledge contributions and academic leadership could still be extended to also include inspiring dialogic encounters across various knowledge systems for their mentees.

If we fail in this, the consequence will be that future scholars inducted into various knowledge fields will be confined and limited to where their mentors (the professoriate) have ended.

Future knowledge producers will, in turn, struggle to use their knowledge in ways that will enable the generation of alternative knowledge traditions for solving known and long-standing global challenges.

As I will be attempting to show shortly, one of the consequences of relying on theories of learning and teaching (here I include research teaching and postgraduate supervision) informed by Western hegemony is a perennial tendency to still frame our work mostly from our middle-class positions and privileges.

Our four-year research project titled, ‘The influence of rurality on student trajectories through higher education: A view from the South (2017–20)’, enabled us to generate data that exposes the poverty in theorising learning and teaching in ways that are shaped by this Western hegemony. This was a collaborative international research project involving South African and United Kingdom (UK) partners.

In this project, we investigated how students from rural contexts negotiate the transition to university.

We also wanted to understand how prior cultural and educational experiences enabled or constrained their higher-education trajectories.

To avoid treating students that were involved in the study as subjects we were studying, we deliberately positioned them as core researchers. We did this as a way of signalling, and indeed acknowledging, that who they were, what they knew and how they learned were aspects that constituted their identities and daily lives, and only they could educate us to understand these dimensions fully.

We wanted to learn from and through them to gain access to alternative ontological orientations and epistemological traditions about which our years of university learning could not educate us.

Only they could educate us about how their ontological orientations and epistemological traditions enabled or constrained their negotiation of their transition to and through the lived spaces of higher education.

To be educated on these matters, we relied on narratives, digital artefacts and focused group conversations. These data-generation techniques enabled us to gain access to understanding how family and community, including religious, study and self-help groups, influenced their transition into higher education and their journey through university. Among other things, our study revealed that:

… students’ histories and lived experiences in rural contexts help them to negotiate their trajectories across different lived spaces, including spaces still laced with colonial legacies that underpin HE curricular, systems, practices and values, thus shaping their identities, agency and sense of belonging.

From the professorial point of view, the study findings humbled me when I realised how the ‘worlds’ students from rural contexts bring into higher education ‘evaporate’ as they are forced by higher-education knowledge traditions to unlearn the practices that have enabled them to define their world, who they are in it, and what contributions their worlds have equipped them to make.

To ensure other elements of our findings are accessible to the higher-education community, this project has documented its findings through theses and dissertations written by masters-degree and doctoral graduates, publication outputs in several local and international journals, and a book titled Rural Transitions to Higher Education in South Africa: Decolonial Perspectives, published by Routledge in 2021.

All this work shows the limitations of monolithic Western worldviews with respect to understanding and solving problems in our world.

With the aid of fellow professors in our research team, this body of work shifted our view of students from rural contexts in fundamental ways.

Rather than a deficit construction of this group of students that we held as a result of our subconscious tendencies to equate a lack of resources in rural areas with cognitive mediocrity, our findings revealed how students utilised this prior collective experience in rural contexts and their own agency to move into new worlds.

This is an example of how what Western hegemony constructs as a deficit is actually an example of the development of good work ethic, dedication and commitment. It emerged very strongly from student co-researchers’ narratives and as part of their daily practices in rural communities.

Incidentally, this is a disposition that is necessary to succeed at university. Our study reveals, among other things, the poverty implicit in the manner in which a Western worldview theorises on teaching and learning, with its insistence on constructing critical aspects of human life as separate.

To suggest that knowledge and its generation are separate from the gender, race, social class, location, the day-to-day, contextual, cultural and linguistic elements of those generating knowledge, is plainly misleading. It is even more embarrassing to accept that this simplistic rationale has continued to shape curricular design, its development, pedagogy and assessment within formal education.

Learning as active, affective and experiential

I was introduced to the idea of learning as active and affective and experiential at undergraduate level by Professor Michael Anthony Samuel. It was in 1997 when I was a final-year student at the then University of Durban-Westville. One of the assignments he gave us in the English Method course was titled: ‘Who am I?’.

We were all offered an opportunity to reflect in writing on how we were taught English, learned English, and learned in English.

Not only did this assignment convey a message to a young person from a working-class background that my experiences were valued at university level, but also that my life in a black township, as well as rural context, and my schooling in grossly under-resourced schools were in fact great ingredients for making a great English teacher. Testimony to this is a closing comment he wrote to my assignment: “I would be happy if you taught English to my children.”

As though to further testify to the value of the idea of learning as active and affective and experiential, in the same year that same assignment was converted into my first-ever conference presentation at the National Postgraduate Conference hosted by the University of Cape Town.

It is the same assignment, furthermore, that became my first-ever academic output published in an international academic journal called Language Learning Journal. The title of this 2009 publication was: ‘On becoming literate in English: a during- and post-apartheid personal story’.

In concluding this brief conversation on my journey as an academic since 1997, I have attempted to reflect on the impact of the neoliberal ideology on a professorial role.

I also indicated possible theoretical and conceptual tools I have used over the years to escape the trappings of Western hegemony in my teaching and learning, postgraduate supervision, as well as leadership and management. In all this, I have attempted to reveal the theoretical and conceptual conditions that have continued to favour the elite and disadvantage the majority of university students.

Overall, the message from this conversation is that all postcolonial contexts need a professoriate that will consciously free themselves and those they mentor from the discourses that normalise the supremacy and infallibility of Western hegemony, in other words, Euro-American cultures, ideas, worldviews and definitions of the world.

It is a professoriate that will consciously enable their mentees to critically reflect on and be reflexive in the way they engage in the knowledge-generation project.

For all of us operating at the professoriate level and who are committed to contributing meaningfully to the transformation and decolonisation of higher education, we may need to take Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ advice very seriously:

In order to identify what is missing and why, we must rely on a form of knowledge that does not reduce reality to what exists. I mean a form of knowledge that aspires to an expanded conception of realism that includes suppressed, silenced, or marginalised realities, as well as emergent and imagined realities.

Professor Emmanuel Mfanafuthi Mgqwashu is the director of the Centre for Higher Education Professional Development, which is part of the faculty of education, North-West University, South Africa. This is an edited version of his professorial inaugural lecture. For the full paper, e-mail