Shifts in racial profile of professors still slow – Study

Despite policy changes and several transformation interventions, white academics in South African universities still dominate the upper echelons of the academic ladder. This is according to the Council on Higher Education’s recently released Review of Higher Education in South Africa 25 years into Democracy.

The Council on Higher Education (CHE) is an independent statutory body that provides advice to the minister of higher education and training, science and innovation. It is also the national authority for quality assurance and promotion in higher education in South Africa.

In its review, a chapter on “The staffing situation in public higher education institutions” by Mncedisi Maphalala, Monwabisi Ralarala and Nhlanhla Mpofu has revealed that there have been shifts and realignment in the composition of the workforce at all rungs of the academic ladder. The rungs of seniority in the academic ladder are that of professor, associate professor, senior lecturer, lecturer and junior lecturer.

They point out that the period 1994 to 2019 saw a growth in the number of permanent staff at universities.

“While, in 2000, white academics are the dominant block at each rung on the academic career path, in 2018, they were the dominant block only at the professor and associate professor levels.” They were also just slightly below half (49%) of the academic workforce at senior lecturer level.

“It is, therefore, clear that the higher rungs on the academic career ladder are still under the dominance of one race group,” assert the researchers.

Shifts in staff demography

Their study points out that, in 2000, white academic staff comprised 64% (24,484) of the total academic staff, while black African academics made up 16% (6,291). Coloured academic staff made up 4% (1,350) and Indian academics constituted 6% (2,142) of this staff category. The remaining 11% (4,177) were uncategorised.

However, the proportion of white academics declined significantly to 40% (22,877) in 2018, while the proportion of black African academic staff more than doubled to 44% (25,252). The proportion of coloured and Indian academic staff grew by 2% each to 6% (3,510) and 8% (4,808), respectively.

The proportion of white academic staff who were professors declined from 85% (2,208) in 2000 to 67% (2,086) in 2018, even though the actual headcount remained similar. The proportion of black African academic staff at the professor level more than doubled, from 8% (196) in 2000 to 19% (602) in 2018.

“In the same vein, the proportion of white academic staff who were associate professors declined from 87% in 2000 to 58% in 2018, although the actual headcount increased slightly. The proportion of black African academic staff at the associate professor level increased significantly, from 8% (105) in 2000 to 25% (679) in 2018.”

Furthermore, the proportion of black African academic staff increased in all the other post levels: senior lecturer increased from 11% (558) to 35% (2,217), lecturer from 20% (2,470) to 45% (8,462) and junior lecturer from 28% (830) to 60% (2,818), respectively.

‘Superficial’ transformation

“Despite these increases, there are indications that transformation targets for staffing in terms of demographic representation have not been achieved,” while transformation “has remained superficial in a variety of areas”, assert Maphalala, Ralarala and Mpofu.

The second conclusion is that the black African majority are still under-represented within the executive and senior management echelons. Black Africans make up 37% of the people who hold executive and senior management positions, despite constituting 80.9% of the country’s population.

Of the 2,974 professional support staff appointed on a permanent basis in 2000, the majority, 67% (2,002), were white followed by African, 22% (661), while the coloured and Indian categories were 5% each (140 and 161 respectively). In 2018, the proportion of white professional staff declined to 35% (1,779), black staff increased to 41% (2,051), coloured staff increased to 16% (785) and Indian staff increased to 8% (384).

It is also worth noting that the African professional support staff (41%) remains under-represented in terms of the South African demographics as they constituted 80.9% of the country’s population in 2018, assert the researchers.

The researchers argue that the stark inequities in representation and participation in terms of gender and race made the transformation agenda necessary.

“For example, the representation of women in academic staff in 2011 was 45%, but their representation in the senior ranks and management positions was still extremely low compared to their male counterparts.”

Furthermore, in 2011, 55% of academics were still white, with black African academics accounting for 30%, while the proportion of other races stood at 15%. They refer to the department of higher education and training’s White Paper on Post School Education and Training (2013), which also raised concern about ageing academia with few young people joining the profession, “a situation that requires immediate rectification”.

Closing the gender gap

While the distribution of staff by designation or rank and qualification level remained disproportional, there is evidence that the sector managed to close the gender gap by 2018. It was found that senior academic positions were predominantly held by males.

Of the 2,601 professors in 2000, males constituted 86% (2,247), and the females constituted 14% (352). In 2018, of the total 3,125 professors, males comprised 70% (2,183) and females 30% (942). “This suggests a significant increase from 14% in 2000 to 30% in 2018 in the representation of females at the professoriate rung on the academic career ladder.”

The same applies to the level of associate professor. Of the total 1,289 associate professors in 2000, 78% (1,000) were male, while the remaining 22% (289) were female. In 2018, of the total 2,715 associate professors, males constituted 60%, while 40% (1,085) were females.

“Thus, the representation of females at the associate professor level improved significantly from 22% in 2000 to 40% in 2018.”

However, male senior lecturers declined from 66% (3,380) in 2000 to 53% (3,338) in 2018, while the proportion of female senior lecturers increased from 34% (1,725) in 2000 to 47% (3,011) in 2018.

The study concludes that, “There is a clear dominance of white males in the system. This is notwithstanding the fact that there have been gradual increases in the numbers of all previously marginalised groups in academic staff …”

Coloniality of knowledge

It also indicates that the black African majority are still under-represented within the executive and senior management echelons. “Black Africans make up 37% of the people who hold executive and senior management positions … Of all the executive and senior managers in public higher education institutions, 45% are women also, although women make up 51% of the total population of South Africa.”

The researchers note that staff apply for promotion to achieve recognition, status and increased remuneration. A critique of the promotion criteria employed by many public higher education institutions is that undue weight is attached to achievement in the core function area of research but not on the equally important core function area of teaching.

“This is possible because research output can be more easily measured than the outputs of teaching.” Referring to research by other scholars, the authors indicate that the system of promotion in higher education “largely remains fraught with bias [awarding] certain population groups more promotions than others”.

A possible reason for this slow pace in transformation among university staff is “the notion of coloniality of knowledge and the patterns of its production and reproduction in universities in South Africa which contributes significantly to the entrenchment of the race and gender disparities in staffing in public higher education institutions in South Africa”.

“With the lack or slow pace of curricula transformation [decolonisation] in the sector, there is little that can be done to speed the process of staffing transformation,” the researchers point out.

Another possible factor is the phenomenon of staff migration to greener pastures. Higher education institutions in the developed world have significant numbers of black South African professors in highly specialised fields like medicine and engineering.

Their recommendations include introducing sector-wide mentoring programmes for new and junior academic staff, while preference should be given to under-represented groups during recruitment, in line with employment equity targets.