Universities express their support for new digital frameworks for emerging scholars 

Published On: 6 October 2022|

Dr Robin Drennan, Director of Research Development at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), expressed his appreciation for the work being done, after Dr Leandra Jordaan had finished her presentation to the universities present. Jordaan is the research consultant for the soon-to-be-active Thuso Resources, which will be hosted on the website of Universities South Africa (USAf).

“This is a huge amount of work. I’m hugely impressed, and very keen to be involved. So congratulations,“ said Drennan, who is Director for Research Development at Wits.

The UCDP grant overlaps with Thuso

Professor Urmilla Bob (left), Dean of Research and a geography professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said she echoed Drennan’s sentiments. “It is, indeed, a tremendous amount of work,” she said.

She said she was grateful that the site’s initiators, the programme for the Advancement of Early Career Researchers and Scholars (AECRSled by Professor Stephanie Burton of the University of Pretoria, acknowledged that it was not happening on an empty slate. She said she had been part of an international project, together with colleagues from Rhodes University, on enhancing postgraduate environments. The project had included a supervision capacity component and Thuso needed to be linked to that project’s website “because the time and the resources have already been invested”, she said.

Universities also had a grant from the state-funded Capacity Development Programme (UCDP), which included developing the capacity of young emerging researchers. “We need to bring those resources into the space so that they can be shared,” she said.

Bob said Thuso was “an extremely important effort to level the playing field and to create equity in terms of accessibility because not every young researcher sitting in a different space at a different university has the same resources.

“You certainly have our full support. But we need to think strategically about where we’ve invested already,” said Professor Bob.

What about monitoring?

Dr Khomotso Semenya from the University of South Africa (Unisa) pointed out that Jordaan’s presentation had mentioned monitoring, but she had not heard any further reference to it.  Professor Burton said that part of the project would start in January 2023.

Thuso will not be imposed on universities

Dr Samantha Govender, Research Chair and Acting Head of Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, said their Future Professor’s programme was another existing initiative that overlapped with Thuso Resources.  She said it included details about mentorship, writing opportunities and grant applications, and she would encourage integration of those two platforms.

From an institutional viewpoint, she also wondered if universities needed to appoint an administrator for this platform.

Professor Burton responded that the whole point of Thuso was that it was about “coordination and cohesion and trying to complete the patchwork of all of these programmes so that we don’t duplicate or overlap, and integration will be important”.

In terms of the university administration, she said the aim was to make the platforms easy and not something that would be imposed on institutions. “I don’t want to have to ask universities to spend lots of time and resources on this,” she said.

The site needed one contact point within an institution, possibly the research office or that of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s.  The team within USAf would assist and there were service providers to build the system, but they did need somebody who could answer the question of what was available to share on the web platform, and to do this more than once.

Building researchers’ resilience

Dr Henriëtte van den Berg, Manager: Transformation of the Professoriate Mentoring Programme at the University of the Free State, said she thought they had done “a great piece of work” on the project and she would also like to become involved. She said Thuso Resources reminded her of the Vitae Researcher Development Framework in the United Kingdom. She said Vitae included the academic identity of emerging researchers and building their resilience. Her own experience also revealed that this socio-emotional component was vital for professional mentoring, along with support and training for the mentors themselves.

Professor Phindile Lukhele-Olorunju (right), Director of Research Management at the University of Mpumalanga, said as a young university of eight years old, mentorship was very important to them as they had more emerging researchers than established ones. “We are ready to learn and gain a lot from all the universities. This is a wonderful programme. We really appreciate this. Thank you very much,” she said.

Associate Professor Nokukhanya Jili from the University of Zululand (UniZulu)said Thuso spoke to the needs of their emerging researchers, especially regarding mentorships. Their emerging researchers needed help with research publications, getting exposure, and funding for postgraduate studies. UniZulu appreciated this initiative and was looking forward to it.

Professor Burton suggested Jili become involved with USAf’s Community of Practice on Postgraduate Education and Scholarship, which was planning on establishing a working group to look at postgraduate funding.

Mentoring programmes to share

Dr Xena Cupido (right), Director at the Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), said their Sisonke supervision mentorship programme helped strengthen the capacity of newly qualified PhD staff. It was not part of her directorship so she could not speak on their behalf but it might be a good resource to contribute.

Professor Thenjiwe Meyiwa, Vice-Principal of Research, Postgraduate Studies, Innovation, and Commercialisation at Unisa, mentioned that their mentoring workshops were on YouTube.

Writing reports as a supervisor

Professor Mario Smith, Director of the Division for Postgraduate Studies at the University of the Western Cape, congratulated the team on all the work they had done. He said research governance needed to be addressed. Younger colleagues who were new in academic posts did not understand about managing postgraduate training. This was a fatal flaw in higher education nationally, he said, adding he had been appalled at some examiner reports in the last year. Thuso Resources needed to include how to write a good report as a supervisor.

Gratitude for all the support

Janet van Rhyn, Project Manager for Sector Support at USAf, said they were very happy with the positive feedback universities had expressed about the project, which had been on its Research and Innovation Strategy Group’s agenda for a few years. She said they would engage with the Department of Higher Education and Training about the UCDP, which had been flagged in the comments.

Professor Burton said she welcomed the warm reception the plans had received at the workshop. “I want to maintain the enthusiasm that we’re hearing today. And to make it something that everybody is going to enjoy as well as find useful,” she said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.