Universities South Africa celebrates the launch of two digital platforms for emerging scholars

Published On: 22 May 2023|

The way South African universities have joined forces to help emerging scholars is of historical significance, says Dr Phethiwe Matutu, the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa (USAf). In a higher education environment marked by competitiveness, it is encouraging to see universities collaborate, she said.

Dr Matutu (right) was speaking at the hybrid launch of two digital platforms, Thuso Resources and Thuso Connect, on Thursday 18 May. About 30 people – representatives from universities, science councils, donor organisations and the media – gathered at the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) Convention Centre in Pretoria, while about 70 watched the online streaming of the event that celebrated the two platforms going live. Thuso Resources has been coined a ‘’national toolbox for emerging scholars” and Thuso Connect is a mentorship platform.

“This is history. This is exciting,” said Dr Matutu. “It is wonderful to see all the higher institutions working together to bring in the tools required of Thuso Resources; and we are grateful for the work the seasoned academics and researchers who are registering as mentors within the Thuso Connect platform are prepared to do.

“As USAf we commit to continue to build the repository and the database of mentors so that the next generation of academics can get the support they require. The project is advancing excellence; it is advancing inclusion; it is advancing digital technologies and their usage, and is, ultimately, ensuring sustainability of our higher education system,” said Dr Matutu.

The project is also the outcome of an evidence-based solution that is “typical of what the academy demands of us”, said USAf’s newly-appointed Director of Operations and Sector Support, Mr Mahlubi “Chief” Mabizela (left).

In his former position as Chief Director for University Education Policy and Development Support at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Mabizela was part of the genesis of these two platforms, what he called “a background to be proud of, particularly because it is based on identification of a problem, then a study, and then the provision of a solution”. This was a far better way of finding solutions to problems than speculation and guesswork, he said, adding that all too often government studies and projects end in reports “and nothing thereafter”.

He said the launch was “a demonstration of what happens when a vision has been kept alive, leading to a conversion of a study report into a tangible project”. Part of that vision, said Mabizela, was having the foresight to bring in USAf to drive the project from the outset. Other projects that government had handed to USAf, where “the results speak for themselves”, he said, include Higher Health, Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE), and Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programmes.

Professor Stephanie Burton (right), a USAf Research Fellow who is the project leader of the Advancing Early Career Researchers and Scholars (AECRS) programme that developed these platforms, picked up on the concept of collaboration. Burton, former Vice-Principal: Research and Postgraduate Education at the University of Pretoria, said Thuso Resources had sprung from conversations between deputy vice-chancellors for research “over several years, in which we often said to each other, ‘we can collaborate, we have resources we can share’.

“It’s not that there is no capacity,” she said, “it’s just that it is uneven’’.

She said USAf’s Community of Practice for Postgraduate Research and Scholarship (CoP PGES), of which she chairs the steering committee, had engaged with all the universities in the country in one-on-one sessions. They had also conducted on-going discussions with USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group, and had spoken to HELM, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), DHET, and the National Research Foundation, and, more recently with SANLiC (the South African National Library and Information Consortium). “We must acknowledge the contribution of all of these organisations in putting together these two platforms,” said Professor Burton.

The background

The former Department of Science and Technology (now DSI) started the ball rolling that led to the Thuso Resources and Thuso Connect. They had commissioned USAf to manage a study aimed at addressing how to increase research activity at South African universities.

The outcome was “Building a Cadre of Emerging Scholars for Higher Education in South Africa”, researched by Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), and published in March 2018.

Professor Burton was part of the study’s reference group. So too was Chief Mabizela and Bheki Hadebe (left), then the Department of Science and Technology’s Director for Research Development – when Dr Matutu was a Chief Director. Hadebe is now DSI’s Director for High-End Skills.

In a “related parallel development’’ said Hadebe at the launch, a ministerial task team investigated the recruitment, retention, and progression of black South African academics. “We presented the recommendations of both studies to cabinet,” he said, “because they had intense resource requirements”.

He said the ministerial task team study found that “institutional cultures and practices such as racism, sexism, competing academic responsibilities, lack of role models and mentors – resulting in an inability of many academics to embark on research careers — are significant barriers to recruitment, retention, and progression of black SA academics”.

Based on these two reports, and following a series of interviews, Professor Burton then compiled a Proposal for Implementation to USAf, which led to the establishment of the CoP PGES in 2021, and now Thuso Connect and Thuso Resources.

“I do want to acknowledge wholeheartedly the enormous contributions that have been made by colleagues in the Department of Science and Innovation. Not just financial support for which we are very grateful and that has been consistent and continuing, but also for their interest, their support, their input, as we have gone along this path,” said Burton.

The nitty-gritty of Thuso Connect

“This needs to succeed for South Africa,” said Dr Leandra Jordaan, AECRS’s project researcher. “We don’t want to just build something and say ‘we’ve done it, thank you very much, goodbye’.”

After considerable research looking for comparable mentorship programmes – which do not seem to exist in countries publishing their research in English – and assessing the complexities of mentorship, they had opted to outsource to an American company. Wisdom Share is not a software company that can build a mentorship programme, said Jordaan, but is exclusively a mentoring software platform which, founded in 2001, has decades of global experience with large companies, educational institutions, and non-profits.

“They claim 98.6% matching success,” said Dr Jordaan of the process of matching suitable mentees with mentors. “If we get around 80 to 90%, it’s 10% less than what they have, but considering the scale, that would be really good.”

Similarly, the company claims retention rates of about 70%. Dr Jordaan said they would be happy with 60%. “That would mean 60% of early career academics who had no one to guide them, would now have someone,” she said.

“Put in your profile and the system will do the work for you,” she said. “It’s taking a little bit of the grunt work out of it for everybody. And we have adapted it and localised the terminology for South Africa”.

They wanted to begin with first registering mentors to avoid mentees singing up and waiting for a long time to be watched.

How Thuso Resources works

Jordaan demonstrated how to navigate Thuso Resources. It has icons and categories such as “develop your academic career’’ and “being successful at supervision”. It also has keywords such as “pressure to publish” and “research ethics”. Much of the information is Open Source. To access the information universities have provided, that is only for emerging researchers, users will have to sign up.

‘’Everything is dynamic and interlinked,” said Dr Jordaan, pointing out that the homepage included a link for users to contribute information to the site, as well as a feedback option.

An invitation to contribute

Professor Burton said they were now ”encouraging established, wise people” – remembering that “not all wise people are old” – who can offer mentorship to register on Thuso Connect on https://thusoconnect.mywisdomshare.com and “walk this next step with us”. AECRS was dependent on their academic community to help make these platforms very successful, she said.

She also extended an invitation to institutions to contribute to Thuso Resources on https://thusoresources.usaf.ac.za/. “You’ve seen how slick it is and how easy it is, but we need to keep it up to date and we need contributions. Be a partner with us to provide the kind of toolbox that our early career academics need.

“This was initially a dream of a small number of people, but this is not a small community now. As a higher education sector, we have something we’ve built that we’re very proud of, and that certainly has not been an individual effort. It has been a joint effort,” she said, thanking everyone who had contributed.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.