Where are our black academics?

2014-08-03 15:00

Fewer than one in 10 of South Africa’s university professors are black.

Only two of the country’s formerly white universities, as classified by the apartheid government, have more than 10% black South African-born professors?–?the University of KwaZulu-Natal (14%) and the University of Johannesburg (11%).

Rhodes University has the highest number of white professors (94.3%), followed by the University of the Free State (92.6%) and the University of Pretoria (86%).

The latest available data from the department of higher education and training from 2012 show that nationwide, 76% of professors are white, 5% are Indian and 4.5% are coloured.

Many institutions mask this lack of transformation by counting all staff members who are not white as black, whether they are coloured, Indian or Asian.

Only at formerly black universities like Fort Hare, the University of Zululand and the University of Venda is the picture different. There, student bodies are almost entirely black South African and more than half of the academic staff is black.

A professorship is the most senior title that can be bestowed on an academic.

Black South Africans are slightly better represented at lower academic levels?–?19% of all senior lecturers and 35% of all junior lecturers?–?but experts say not enough is being done to keep promising black academics at universities.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande’s office said it had several plans to retain young black talent in academia, including:

» Dramatically increasing the number of state-sponsored bursaries for postgraduate students, including international students; and

» A new funding formula for universities to “provide ring-fenced funding for the employment and support of entry-level academics”.

The historically white universities that responded to City Press enquiries all had measures in place to change demographics among senior staff. These included:

» Reserving posts for designated groups;

» Longer academic leave;

» Financial incentives; and

» Staff development programmes.

The competition

Nasima Badsha, CEO of the Cape Higher Education Consortium, said black matriculants faced numerous barriers, even in beginning tertiary education.

These include poor school career guidance, incorrect matric subject choices and a lack of financial support.

But for those black matriculants who jump the hurdles and thrive at university, academia is not a popular career choice.

Dr Sizwe Mabizela, deputy vice-chancellor for academic and student affairs at Rhodes, said academia as a profession was “not generally as attractive as government and the private sector for young black graduates”.

“This is compounded by the fact that most are under pressure to earn a salary, often immediately after the first degree, so they can support extended families and assist paying school or university fees for siblings,” said Mabizela.

Academic salary packages are also not competitive compared with those in government and the private sector.

For example, said Wits University spokesperson Kanina Foss, a geologist in the mining sector is likely to earn up to three times more than a geology lecturer.

On top of that, Mabizela said, higher qualifications were required for academic jobs and not nearly enough funding was available to support poorer students through postgraduate study.

“The National Development Plan sets a target of 100?000 PhDs by 2030 to improve research and innovation capacity. To reach this target, we need to train 6?000 PhDs per annum. The country is turning out just more than 1?800 PhDs a year.”

Institutional issues

The Higher Education Transformation Network blamed the low number of black professors on “elites that control the profession” and said “anonymous research” into black academics’ career paths would show that “many shallow and unqualified white academics have been promoted because they entrench the establishment paradigm”.

Foss said while Wits was “committed to paying fair salaries”, it was “focused on creating an enabling and supportive environment for academics to make it attractive to younger academics”.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has the highest number of black junior lecturers of the eight historically white universities surveyed by City Press?–?39%.

UJ spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said the real equity challenge in universities was “the lack of a critical mass of designated candidates” as the higher education system had “less than 40% black academics”.

“An important mark of transformation is the extent to which universities have initiatives to increase the critical mass of black academics,” he said.

Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State (UFS), said institutional cultures at many historically white universities made it difficult for academics of other races and for women to fit in.

“Unless you fix the school system, the number of top black graduates exiting higher education will always produce too small a number who wish to become academics.”

He said that competition among top universities for “really top black candidates” was intense and that a few universities granted professorships to candidates who did not “merit such status”.

The Solutions 

UFS and Wits have set themselves aggressive equity targets. At Wits, half of the new appointments are reserved for “designated groups”.

At UFS, equity aims are part of the performance targets of department heads.

Stellenbosch University, which lags behind in staff and student equity, also has transformation plans that have led to vociferous criticism from a few council members and former students in recent weeks.

Jansen said more government bursary funding should be made available to universities that demonstrate they are serious about transformation.

“We’ve had to scrounge around from international institutions, such as the Mellon Foundation, for bursaries and the money we get barely keeps students in class.”

South Africa’s professors

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