With just over three months in existence since its inaugural meeting on 31 March, Universities South Africa’s newly founded Community of Practice for Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (CoP PGES), is starting to make its mark. At its second meeting on 7 July, the CoP was able to report back to members that it had co-hosted an international webinar about establishing collaborative partnerships.
Professor Stephanie Burton (left), interim chair of the CoP PGES steering committee, who is a Research Fellow at USAf and a Professor of Biochemistry and Professor at Future Africa at the University of Pretoria, said the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in the United States – the association of all postgraduate colleges in the US – had initiated the event. CGS’s president, Suzanne Ortega, had approached the community of practice, and the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) in Teaching and Learning at the University of Johannesburg, a position held by Professor Shireen Motala, to collaborate on a discussion about building networks not only in South Africa but across Africa.
About 100 people had participated in the subsequent webinar, titled Global Conversations on Postgraduate Education: Exploring Pan-African Connections. Dr Charles Ambler from the University of Texas had led the panel with a presentation on Postgraduate Education in Africa: Challenges and Prospects.
“We were very pleased to be able to have representatives on the panel from institutions spread across Africa,” said Professor Burton, citing representation from Ghana, Egypt and our own South Africa in the person of Professor Fulufhelo (Fulu) Netswera, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management Sciences at the Durban University of Technology.
She said they had spoken about “how we could collaborate around internationalisation, student mobility and the preparation of future faculty, the future academics,’’ she said.
“There was a lot of discussion about how we might build partnerships. It was clear that we do have common issues, around resources, around how to collaborate effectively, and how to include students in collaboration. And the inevitable question about supervision – how best to collaborate in supervising and what are the best models for that,” said Professor Burton.
Postgraduates and international experience
The information about the webinar prompted Professor Jesika Singh (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Partnerships at the University of Limpopo, and a member of the community of practice’s interim steering committee, to raise a point about the mobility of postgraduate students.
She said many countries with which they had partnerships required masters and doctoral students to have some international experience as part of the programme. It created many opportunities for students, yet South Africa did not have such a built-in system for postgrad students. “It is something that we should be talking about in South Africa as a sector for postgraduates,” said Professor Singh.
‘’How do we do international mobility, and how do we build it in, even if it is small?” This would be added to the list of topics for future discussion.
Proposal for a working group on postgraduate funding
Professor Burton said shortage of funding for postgraduate study had come up very strongly in their inaugural meeting as well as in the Council on Higher Education’s (CHE’s) recently released Doctoral Degrees National Report, which had raised the concern that insufficient funding can compromise the experience of a doctoral study as well as the capacity of students to work on the qualification.
Only 1% of students in South Africa are fully funded from honours to doctoral studies and she proposed that the community of practice establish a working group to delve into postgraduate funding more deeply.
Creating such a task team was in line with the CoP PGES’s terms of reference mandating it to perform an advisory role, and responsibility to submit recommendations to its mother strategy group, USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG). The RISG is headed by Professor Thoko Mayekiso, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga.
Professor Burton said the working group needed to address:
- what the issues are;
- how to address them;
- what the funding models are; and
- how to leverage resources to support postgraduate students.
A few people had indicated they were keen to be part of the working group. Other interested volunteers could contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org or Janet van Rhyn, USAf’s Project Manager for Operations and Sector Support on email@example.com.
The Advancing Early Career Academics project, supported by the Department of Science and Innovation, is being implemented through USAf, and it has been agreed that effective monitoring of interventions would start in 2023.
Those prepared to serve as mentors for early career academics can volunteer their services on an online mentorship resource platform that is nationally-coordinated. Burton is working with a project manager and researcher to investigate current practices, ‘’not only in our own institutions, but globally, for setting up mentorship, how it works and the degrees to which it’s successful,” she said.
“We have always agreed that all of our different institutions have some modules, programmes, resources, which are open-access or open to be used, but we don’t really share them effectively and in some cases, the institutions would be quite happy to share them,” she said. They are establishing a central repository they have called a national toolbox, which will be online on the USAf platform. They have started to collect resources and hope to have established it by the end of the year.
“It’s going to be an ongoing thing. It’s never going to be completed. It will always be updated regularly but it will be, I think, a very useful resource,” said Professor Burton.
The CoP PGES website is live
USAf invited people to visit the community of practice’s website, www.pges.usaf.ac.za, and see its logo and sections of interest. Now live, the website will house all information such as the link to the international collaborative webinar and notes from their meetings.
Discussion topics and nominations for the next meeting
Professor Burton said she wished to add supervision models as a topic for the next meeting, ideally in the form of presentations from those ‘’who have experience with some of the newer ways of doing supervision”, she said. This would include a focus on “training academics who are going to be supervising doctoral students, because this is clearly something which has come out as being a need across the sector”.
Ms Janet van Rhyn, who coordinates the CoP PGES work, said the next meeting would be on a still-to-be-determined date in October. They would send out invites in the next couple of weeks.
The CoP now needed to nominate a new chairperson and committee to take office for three years as from 1 January 2023, as the term of office for the interim steering committee and chairperson concludes at the end of the year.
USAf will, in due course, circulate the membership list of the community of practice, effectively the universities’ nominated representatives, as well as an online nomination form. Nominations close on 22 July and the list of nominees will be presented at the October meeting. The nominees must be people with the necessary expertise and understanding relating to the postgraduate sector. They must commit to being involved in activities and projects of the CoP and regularly attend meetings,” she said.
Once the steering committee has been appointed, members will then vote for the chairperson and deputy chair via an online poll.