Eminent scholars laud USAf’s newest CoP as an excellent platform for strengthening SA’s postgraduate scholarship

Published On: 8 April 2022|

The newly formed Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice on Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (CoP PGES) held its inaugural meeting online on 31 March. It was attended by over 60 people representing all public universities and officials from USAf.

Welcoming the attendees, USAf’s Director: Operations and Sector Support, Dr Linda Meyer (right), said this CoP added to a family of eight USAf-funded communities of practice that are operational and supportive structures to USAf’s five strategy groups.

By virtue of this CoP’s focus areas, which include supporting and sustaining postgraduate education quality and expertise, developing capacity for postgraduate education and supervision, providing support for supervisors, and enabling collaboration across all disciplines of all 26 public universities, the group would report to the Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG). Dr Meyer said USAf would see to it that this new CoP is adequately resourced. As she extended gratitude to Professor Stephanie Burton, the CoP’s interim Chairperson, for leading the formation of this group under the auspices of RISG, she wished the group a very fruitful engagement and reaffirmed USAf’s commitment to ensuring that the CoP functioned as intended.

Echoing Dr Meyer’s words, Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf’s CEO, said, “we have to agree that the sustainability of our higher education and science system lies in successfully attracting a pipeline of students into postgraduate education, and that those students are afforded the best support to succeed.”

Those who attended the inaugural meeting of the CoP PGES on 31 March heard of students waiting three to four months for feedback from supervisors. Professor Sioux McKenna (left), Director of Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University (RU), also mentioned instances of supervisors often misunderstanding their role – resulting in unnecessary conflicts. She was demonstrating, in her input, the complexities of postgraduate studies in South Africa’s higher education system.

Addressing the meeting as one of the invited speakers, Professor McKenna said, “If postgraduate education is the most highly subsidised area of education by taxpayers, it must be good for all people and the planet. So, I would love to see this community of practice as a space for us to have those big scale conversations – not just on ‘what are we doing in our practices’, but also ‘what’s it all for?’”

Professor McKenna leads Rhodes University’s flagship programme, Strengthening Postgraduate Supervision, which has been attended by over 1000 South African academics, was offered more than 70 times in seven countries, and has now secured European Union funding to take it further afield on the continent.

The five guest speakers at the meeting, all leading figures in South Africa’s higher education, extolled the value of this new initiative of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG). Most of them outlined topics that they wished to see this CoP discussing in its course of work.

Dr Romilla Maharaj (right), Executive Director: Human and Infrastructure Capacity Development at the National Research Foundation (NRF), for one, said she was interested in the funding aspect of the engagements lined up on this platform. She then outlined NRF’s thinking on the global knowledge partnership for advancing postgraduate education in South Africa, even citing a few examples of such existing partnerships created with global entities and those on the African continent.

In the Global Knowledge Partnerships category, she mentioned that the NRF was looking to source and realign existing support programmes to offer opportunities for outstanding masters and doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows to spend from six to 18 months abroad. She gave examples of partnerships formed with Austria, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States that are already supporting the mobility of postgraduate students. She also spoke of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS), which is looking to support up to 45 honours and master’s scholars looking to study for up to five years at African universities outside of their country of origin. More detail on those opportunities may be accessed here.

Dr Maharaj congratulated USAf on establishing this community of practice. “We come from a background where we would often quote the number 27 PhDs per million population. We have been fixated on the numbers and demographics, and throughput rates. I’m glad the conversations are now shifting to quality, relevance, scholarly development, and the doctoral journey. I’m excited to be part of this group,” she said.

So was Professor Shireen Motala (left) , SARChI Chair of Teaching and Learning at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), who said being part of this community of practice was important because it is about “creating access across a very differentiated South African landscape”. She said this would be an excellent platform to advance the agenda of UJ’s newly-formed SARChI chair, which was looking to address the priority areas of teaching, academic learning and the academic curriculum within the following themes:

  • Teaching excellence in undergraduate education
  • Equity, access, and success in undergraduate education
  • Access and success: supervision for quality postgraduate education and
  • Socially just pedagogy and the decolonisation of the curriculum

She said from the SARChI Chair context, the key issues included whether the focus of South Africa’s system on scale compromised quality in postgraduate studies; the mismatch between resource allocation and institutional and national (NDP) ambition; modelling researcher capacity development in postgraduate education; the role and purpose of the doctorate and doctorateness and, especially in the context of CoVID-19, focus on technology and different modalities for delivering postgraduate teaching and learning, and the impact thereof on research processes. The list of issues she presented was much longer.

Professor Motala said she looked forward to the CoP’s upcoming engagements, commending the suggestion made by the CoP’s interim Chairperson, Professor Stephanie Burton, of a joint seminar programme for knowledge exchange, which would gather “contacts and partners in the north and the south to engage in scholarly engagement.” Professor Burton is a Microbiology Professor at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus and USAf’s research fellow.

Speaking on behalf of the RISG Chairperson, Professor Thoko Mayekiso, who could not attend this inaugural meeting due to a competing engagement, Professor Jesika Singh (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Internationalisation and Partnership at the University of Limpopo (UL), who is a member of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group and a member of this CoP’s interim steering committee, said this CoP is an attempt to take postgraduate education to a higher level. She expressed appreciation for the many individuals who had heeded the interim committee’s call to attend this meeting, including some of the guest speakers in attendance and those representing USAf’s partner organisations. “This is what engaged scholarship is all about,” Professor Singh said, wishing all attendees a wonderful meeting.

Representing the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), one of the key supporters of this CoP, whose role includes overseeing the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), Mr Bheki Hadebe (left), Director: High-End Skills, said, from his department’s perspective, this CoP had been established to build a cadre of emerging researchers. He said this was not the only programmatic intervention established to that end, as there were three others. Radebe said the terms of reference of this group were closely aligned with some of the focus areas of the DSI’s Decadal Plan for Science, Technology, and Innovation, namely targeted development support and funding of historically disadvantaged institutions and individuals to ensure a transformed, inclusive, responsive and coherent National System of Innovation, and development in postgraduate financing to provide full-cost support for financially disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and exceptional academic achievers. He, therefore, reaffirmed the DSI’s commitment to continue supporting this CoP generously.

Ms Mandisa Cakwe (right), Director: Teaching and Learning Development in Universities in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), echoed Radebe’s words, saying that this CoP’s objectives dovetail with those of the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme. Acknowledging that the UCDP was a brainchild of USAf, in its era as Higher Education South Africa, Cakwe outlined the UCDP’s numerous programmes aimed at developing university staff. These included the now six-year-old New Generation of Academic programme (nGAP), whose first throughput of PhD graduates was anticipated in 2022; the Staffing SA’s universities programme, which DHET was implementing in collaboration with universities and the NRF, USAf and the British Council’s Newton Fund; the Existing Staff programme which is developing teaching staff into supervisors and mentors of postgraduate students; the Professors’ Programme being piloted at Stellenbosch University and the University of Johannesburg, as well as the Higher Education Leadership and Management Programme (HELM) being implemented by USAf, with visibly good progress.

She did, nonetheless, admit that the UCDP had more funding support for academics than for postgraduate students. She also acknowledged undergraduates’ more significant budget allocation through the National Student Funding Aid Scheme (NSFAS). There was not a lot being done for postgraduate students, she said, except for international scholarships augmented by a little amount matched from the DHET.

In response to the inputs reported above, Professor Ahmed Bawa (left) said he was pleased with DSI’s support and commended DHET’s participation in this forum. “We wish to see greater collaboration between DSI and DHET on this CoP,” he said, calling it a massive opportunity for the higher education sector that science, innovation, and higher education and training portfolios were now under one ministry.

Professor Bawa said USAf had put in place an ongoing system of analysis to see where progress had been made in developing a pipeline of postgraduates and identify the gaps in the system. “One of my pet subjects is PhDs who do not do coursework. Coursework creates a much higher platform for theory development and leaves less to chance while providing opportunities for our institutions to collaborate in producing high-level master’s and doctoral qualifications.” He therefore encouraged members of this CoP to look into this matter as part of exploring the form of doctoral programmes in South Africa.

He also invited the forum to consider turning science councils into sites of doctoral training. Another recommendation he made to this gathering concerned exploring how to place students in the centre of this project.

Background to the CoP PGES

Professor Stephanie Burton (right) explained that the formation of this group was the outcome of a USAf-driven Building the Next Cadre of Emerging Scholars project, started in 2017. The latest chapter of this study, completed in 2021, recommended establishing a national sector-wide forum focusing on postgraduate education and the development of early-career researchers, hence this community of practice.

That study’s other recommendations were:

  • mentorship for early-career academics;
  • a national toolbox or resource database; and
  • monitoring the impact of all these interventions.

While the other two projects were planned to kick off later, the mentorship recommendation was about to see fruition. “It will be an online-based platform hosted by USAf,” said Professor Burton.

Besides Professor Burton, other members of the CoP’s steering committee are Professor Thoko Mayekiso, Chair of the RISG and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga; Professor Jesika Singh, RISG member, and DVC: Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University of Limpopo; and Professor Chris Nhlapo, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa, and
‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communication at USAf.