USAf’s new Community of Practice on Postgraduate Education and Scholarship takes off today

Published On: 30 March 2022|

A meeting set for today — Thursday, 31 March, will see a new community of practice beginning to shine a spotlight on South Africa’s public universities’ efforts to advance postgraduate education and scholarship.

“We talk all the time about undergraduate teaching and learning. But we don’t focus enough on how we educate our postgraduate students, how we set up programmes, how we monitor the progress, how we provide supervision and how we train supervisors,” says Professor Stephanie Burton, a former member of Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), and interim chairperson of the CoP.

Now the focus on postgraduate education is set to change – thanks to the RISG, on whose recommendation the Universities South Africa (USAf) Board of Directors approved the formation of the CoP PGES at their ordinary sitting in June 2021. This CoP is essentially a national advisory and collaborative forum.

The RISG, chaired by Professor Thoko Mayekiso (right), Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Mpumalanga, has been a key driver behind the establishment of the CoP PGES.  Issues relating to research integrity, engaged science and scholarship and postgraduate education and funding, are key priority areas of the RISG.  “Through the CoP’s programme of work, which is one of the topics on the agenda for today’s meeting, the RISG plans to make inroads on these critical issues,” says Professor Mayekiso.

Professor Stephanie Burton, a Professor at the Future Africa campus of the University of Pretoria (UP) and the university’s immediate past Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Research and Postgraduate Education, has been mandated by the RISG to lead the establishment of the CoP PGES, a project of USAf.

Functions of the CoP PGES

As per the established practice of other USAf communities of practice, this CoP will meet at least three times a year – this Thursday’s marking their first formal engagement

Communities of practice are formed to share knowledge and information, to network and to collaborate, and its members support one another by discussing common concerns and devising collective solutions to problems. This one is empowered to make recommendations to USAf’s Risk and Innovation Strategy Group which, in turn, reports to the USAf board.

“The purpose of this CoP is to bring together all the national expertise and the national interest in postgraduate education and scholarship. We’ve added the ‘and scholarship’ because that’s the academic basis for how we educate postgraduates,” said Professor Burton (left). “The purpose is really for all the different universities involved with postgraduates to consider how they might improve and enhance the experience of their postgraduates and improve some areas where they think they don’t have enough activity or expertise.

The forum has the support of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the National Research Foundation (NRF), and university representatives whose participation is recommended but voluntary. These stakeholders will give presentations in today’s programme and will be represented by Dr Romilla Maharaj, from the NRF and Mr Bheki Hadebe from the DSI.

Burton said early career academics are the ones who most often ask for training or advice or mentorship on how to be academics. “There are few specific training courses that you must do, and no exam that you must pass, that teaches you specifically how to become an academic,” she said.

Part of being an academic is supervising postgraduate students. What is the best way to supervise these postgraduates? This is a hot topic for academics. And there is no one right answer, said Burton. It is a subject that concerns academics deeply, one they discuss often.

So, the CoP PGES’s objectives include supporting both individual and institutional capacity development in postgraduate education and scholarship. It will also bring together several national programmes which have a bearing on postgraduate training such as those hosted by the NRF, and the DHET Staffing South Africa’s Universities Framework (SSAUF).

What inspired this CoP

It all started with two reports. One is “A Study on Building a Cadre of Emerging Scholars for Higher Education in South Africa” (March 2018), commissioned by the then Department of Science and Technology, managed by USAf, and researched by Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology  (CREST).  The study aimed to address how to increase research activity at South African universities.

Source: (Mouton 2018)

Its findings included that in 2015, 56% of senior lecturers had a PhD but only 40-45% of them were actively publishing. The report recommended that universities take urgent action to ensure so-called “research inactive” academics become productive researchers.  It also noted that universities needed to intervene to support young academics to pursue research to sustain the quality of SA universities and graduates.

The second report was the DHET’s Report of the Ministerial Task Team on the Recruitment, Retention and Progression of Black South African Academics (November 2019), which investigated what blockages affected this, and the effectiveness of existing initiatives to address it.  The latter recommended more research be done on the factors affecting the declining proportion of black South Africans in postgraduate programmes.

These reports formed the background for a follow-up study commissioned by USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group to establish a baseline of what was in place already, and what was missing, and how the gaps at an institutional level could be addressed.

This report was presented to RISG as well as to the Forum of Deputy Vice-Chancellors for Research where it was agreed the sector needs a group dedicated to postgraduate education. Out of that came the proposal for a community of practice.

Why a CoP in particular?

The RISG decided they needed a kind of strategy group, or a focus group. That thinking evolved into a community of practice “because a strategy group makes strategy but doesn’t necessarily implement and doesn’t necessarily have opportunities to share enough in depth thinking,” said Professor Burton. A community of practice also has the advantage of being more inclusive and can be quite a big group.

The CoP will report into the RISG on a regular basis, and the RISG will also be represented on future steering committees. The RISG is of the view that it will an important role as an implementing arm of the RISG.

What has the interim steering committee done?

The new CoP’s working group or interim steering committee, appointed by USAf, led by Professor Mayekiso and supported by Professor Jesika Singh, a member of the RISG and the DVC: Research, Internationalisation and Partnership at the University of Limpopo, invited universities to nominate representatives who will attend this week’s meeting.  In due course, all stakeholders will elect a steering committee made up of representatives from the different institutions, the Department of Science and Innovation, the NRF and USAf.

What can the sector expect from this CoP?

“We can expect a platform which will provide reporting on the postgraduate education landscape. We can expect to have formed a national community, which will provide mutual collaboration on developing better postgraduate programmes, and understanding more about ways to develop our system,” Professor Burton said.

The CoP will coordinate national activities such as conferences, colloquia, workshops, and seminars.

Some of the topics likely to come up for discussion include:

  • The preparedness of students for postgraduate training
  • Resourcing – funding of postgraduate programmes and students;
  • Mentorship for early career academics;
  • The Council on Higher Education (CHE)’s soon-to-be-released national review of doctoral degrees offered by the 26 public South African universities and two private ones. .

The USAf project manager for the CoP, Ms Janet van Rhyn, says that a dedicated website for the CoP is being commissioned and this will contain a host of resources and linkages for the postgraduate community and provide a platform for universities to also share good practice.  This has been made possible with funding received from the Department of Science and Innovation.

Professor Burton said the collaboration component of the community of practice is critical. “Universities don’t talk to each other enough. And I think this is one of the ways in which we can share expertise, share what we know. And that will help contribute to the development of the whole national system,” she said.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.