Symposium on Developing the Capacity of Early Career Researchers, March 2019

Published On: 10 April 2019|

From 18-19 March, 2019, 20 of South Africa’s 26 public universities converged on the University of Johannesburg grounds to delve deeper into the conversation about developing the capacity of early career researchers at South Africa’s public universities. Up to 70 delegates comprising vice-chancellors; their deputies; senior directors and managers responsible for developing and maintaining the research enterprise at their institutions, attended the two-day symposium. The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), which co-hosted the event with Universities South Africa (USAf), deployed four delegates headed by ACU’s Chief Executive and Secretary General. Also in attendance were scholars from South Africa and Zimbabwe, who led a session on ACU’s support programmes for early career researchers.

Deliberations explored numerous areas, namely, a) the importance of supporting emerging researchers; b) building a cadre of emerging scholars for South Africa’s higher education; challenges they face and support programmes available to them from the ACU and South Africa. Based on the two days’ deliberations, the delegates went on to explore in-depth, appropriate interventions to speed up capacity building of emerging scholars from numerous perspectives including university policy and strategy; institutional structures and planning and funding.

The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Ms Naledi Pandor, MP, delivered a keynote address at the symposium. In his introduction of the Minister to the plenary, Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of the Witwatersrand, described Minister Pandor as one of the best political leaders for higher education, that the sector had had post-1994. “She understands this portfolio; is passionate about it and understands 90% of what is required for this sector to function optimally.” Prof Habib said the Minister’s strength lay in her unfailing habit of reading up on the sector, and her ability to “engage with exceptional nuance.”

Prof Habib said in this era of rising populism (which is undermining institutional attempts to make our world more equal, and undermines common humanity), Minister Pandor had held on steadfastly as a voice against populism and also been an incredible supporter of humanity. “She has displayed absolute belief that you cannot create humanity without justice and equality, and brought these principles into her science policy. Now she is leading SA’s participation in the Square Kilometre Array that is now facilitating world-class science and research, and, in the process, she is putting SA’s intellectual power behind it.”

Within USAf, research and innovation matters are overseen by the Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), which concerns itself with suitability and adequacy of research infrastructure within the system to meet national innovation needs, and also with funding for research and innovation, locally and further afield. The RISG promotes collaborative research with local and global partners. Research capacity development is high on this strategy group’s agenda. Therefore, fittingly, the long-standing issue of an ageing professoriate — and building a pool of emerging researchers for succession and sustainability — fits snugly within this group’s mandate. The ACU, on the other hand, has a proven track record of working with its member institutions to support the development of early career researchers at both individual and institutional level.

Part of the 70-strong delegation on Day Two of the symposium. Attendees comprised vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors: research and senior directors and managers responsible for developing, promoting and maintaining the research enterprise at their institutions. Also in attendance were four officials from the ACU; scholars from SA’s and Zimbabwe’s universities who had directly benefitted from ACU support programmes; three from the DHET’s University Branch and three from the National Research Foundation.

The USAf-ACU symposium was in fact continuing a discussion on emerging researchers, dating back a few years and which peaked at USAf’s biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue of 2018. The emerging researchers’ discourse, dating back as far back as 2005, first drew the sector’s attention to the ageing professoriate in South Africa’s university system. The conversation was further inspired by findings of a year-long study completed in 2017, which looked at a) the profile of SA’s academic staff; key research drivers within South Africa’s public university system and b) key enablers for, and impediments to building a pipeline of emerging researchers. The 2017 study findings brought under spotlight, areas needing attention, and also recommended strategic actions to undertake at the systemic, institutional and individual levels to increase the number, diversity and representation of emerging researchers in the university system.

Together, USAf and the ACU envisaged that the symposium would suggest interventions aimed at supporting early career researchers in South Africa and in the wider region. That vision was achieved.

Whereas USAf is the representative association of South Africa’s public universities, whose mission it is to support its 26 members in the achievement of their core functions of teaching and learning, research and community engagement, and to create an environment where universities can thrive and prosper, and contribute effectively to South Africa’s development, ACU is a membership organisation and representative body for universities of the Commonwealth. It prides itself for its belief in the value of higher education to society, and the conviction that this value is enhanced by international collaboration.

Among numerous areas, the ACU supports its members by promoting and supporting student and staff mobility across the Commonwealth, through scholarships, grants and bursaries; by building institutional capacity and promoting best practice in a range of key areas – from gender equity to supporting early career researchers and also by promoting the sharing of knowledge, experience and best practice through a range of services – including special interest groups, professional development and an innovative online benchmarking exercise.

Click here to access the symposium programme. Another link from each speaker/presenter’s name leads to their full speech or presentation.