Academic mobility is about a lot more than students travelling between countries

Published On: 23 October 2023|

Professor Loyiso Nongxa started his presentation at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Research and Innovation Dialogue by declaring he was a dinosaur. He used to work at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), he said, not specifying that he had been Wits Vice-Chancellor for 10 years before retiring.

He did mention, though, that he had previously been Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) of Research at Wits and part of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group, which was hosting the Dialogue.

Nongxa (left) said although academic mobility used to refer to “students moving elsewhere,” it had many dimensions. It was not just about physical mobility and could also refer to people moving from historically disadvantaged universities to other institutions within the same country. Essentially it was about the purpose of mobility. “The animating idea is that of knowledge – knowledge acquisition; transfer and circulation.” It was also about knowledge co-production — people doing research and being part of international networks, involving people from other places.

Professor Nongxa was one of four speakers on a panel discussion about student mobility at the R&I Dialogue, held in Umhlanga, north of Durban, from 21 to 22 September. The others were: 

  • Mr Bheki Radebe, Director of High-End Skills at the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI);
  • Dr Mtheto Moyo, Acting Director of International Scholarships at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET); and
  • Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi, DVC Research and Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University.

Advocating for postgraduate coursework in mathematics

Professor Nongxa is an ambassador for the National Graduate Academy for the Mathematical Sciences. Established in terms of the South African Higher Education Act and hosted by the University of Pretoria, it focuses on postgraduate students and early career academics. The Academy’s objective is to encourage collaboration. “There’s expertise in our system which resides in pockets. And if there’s expertise in symmetry analysis at Stellenbosch University, then a student at Fort Hare is not going to be able to access it. So, we need to open the silo so that students can benefit from the expertise,” Professor Nongxa said.

Unlike in North America, where coursework precedes doctoral studies, South African mathematical students were expected to specialise very early, Professor Nongxa said. Very often their honours project became a lifelong enterprise. “If you have not been exposed to other areas of mathematics, you are unlikely to become a good mathematician,” he said, adding that the academy believed students at master’s and PhD level needed to do some coursework. That is why it had created a platform for sharing expertise around the coursework.

“We’re not offering qualifications or credits. Those will be the responsibilities of universities. We’re just offering a platform where students can learn from lecturers at other universities,” he said. They were starting with historically disadvantaged universities and the coursework would be presented online, and for free.
He said South African higher education, as a small system, should set up learning communities to promote collaboration and not competition.

Where are SA PhD graduates?

From the DSI, Mr Bheki Hadebe (left) agreed that mobility in higher education could also be within institutions, and within sectors of the system of innovation. “If you stretch if further, you will find mobility in terms of graduate destination, or what we call the PhD tracer study,” he said.

He said DSI had commissioned a study about the destinations of those who had graduated with PhDs from South African universities between 2002 and 2018, and 6 452 of them had completed the web-based survey.

The key findings were that only 2% reported having difficulty finding employment in the first year of completing their doctorates. One in five could not find work related to their field of expertise. Nearly two thirds of respondents were employed in the higher education sector, which is the “biggest absorber of PhDs,” said Hadebe. The study had also shown that one in five respondents accepted a postdoctoral fellowship upon completion of studies, with one in three accepting one or more such positions on completion of the first.

Global mobility

The DSI had joined forces with the National Research Foundation (NRF) on the Global Knowledge Partnership Programme to strengthen their capacity to enhance international opportunities for exceptional doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and early career researchers. “The Rand can’t take us the distance it used to when it was still strong relative to the dollar, so we are using a principle of leverage, core funding, and split-site programmes,” said Hadebe, referring to examples such as the Fulbright Foreign Student Programme to America.

The DSI and Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) had committed more than R20m since 2015/16 to support close to 100 young researchers to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings in Germany with about 40 Nobel winners in a particular field. They shared this encounter with about 600 students from more than 60 countries. “It’s quite a life changing experience,” said Hadebe.

Low uptake of mobility opportunities

Dr Mtheto Moyo (right), in turn, set out to highlight the low uptake on DHET’s mobility programmes embedded in some of its bilateral agreements with international partners. He said the department mainly played an advocacy role of disseminating information on available scholarship opportunities.

Some scholarships had full uptake, such as the French South Africa Scholarship that provided opportunities for joint degrees. “However, there is skewed participation. It is not across the sector,” said Dr Moyo. Others had poor to no uptake, such as the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship, which offered joint degrees, and the Stipendium Hungaricum Scholarship Programme, to study in Hungary, because students had been required to purchase their own flights tickets. Now the state is going to fund the flights.

Erasmus Plus scholarships remain popular

“The flagship programme at the moment is Erasmus Plus,” said Dr Moyo, referring to European Union programmes that target sub-Saharan countries and are “encouraging South African universities to partner with least developed countries,” said Moyo.

South African institutions participated in 37 Erasmus Mundus Joint Master’s Degree programmes between 2014 and 2020. During the same period, 78 students from South Africa were awarded full scholarships to participate in these programmes. In the first year of the new 2021-2027 phase, a further 12 students were awarded these scholarships.
“The call for applications will be coming out in November this year, closing in February 2024,” said Dr Moyo.

Research collaboration as an enabler of mobility

Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi (right) said one of the biggest enablers for student mobility is research collaboration.

“International mobility offers opportunities for students to experience strengthened academic rigour, increased competitiveness through that exposure, collaboration, and hopefully building lifelong collaborations, as most of us will attest,” she said.

It also brings mentorship and networking opportunities and ultimately, the opportunity to become globally engaged scholars with intercultural competencies. That is why South Africa has this comprehensive programme for enhancing student mobility, she said.

Mzilikazi said she was particularly excited by the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS), a collaboration with Canadian industry, which Stellenbosch University had won the bid to host.

At institutional level, networks “help us to meet our own institutional aspirations, but more broadly assist us in contributing to impactful initiatives. I think here of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for example, with the Global Challenges University Alliance (GCUA) being specifically focused on research and initiatives that have implications for SDGs”.

By pooling collective resources – whether driven by individuals, faculties, institutions, regions or globally – “we may have less competition, more collaboration, and greater synergy and complementarity,” said Dr Mzilikazi. “These partnerships also offer us opportunities to create signature programmes that can be unique to each of the institutions.”

Challenges to effective collaboration

Dr Mzilikazi said the DHET’s funding mechanism may be working against collaboration. Researchers might be “wary of collaborating because then the slice of the cake is reduced based on the number of people that contributed,” she said.

“Personally, I think that too much emphasis gets placed on this matter although I am not saying there shouldn’t be emphasis. While we have the leaders of research in higher education institutions gathered here, are we saying we are not extending sufficient oversight? What exactly are we saying? I think it’s important we talk about the extent to which the funding model may hinder or enhance collaboration,” said Dr Mzilikazi.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.