Varsity ups its vooma

2008-06-17 00:00

THE University of KwaZulu-Natal is pulling out all the stops to increase its number of doctoral graduates and retain its current standing as the second most productive South African university — after the University of Pretoria — as measured by gross research output.

Proposals approved by the university’s highest governing body, the Council, last month, say that all lecturers should have doctoral degrees (PhDs) or be registered for a doctorate which should be completed in five years. New staff who do not finish their PhDs in this period should have their terms of employment “reconsidered”. In a move that will formalise an unofficial and largely unpoliced university policy, academics are also now expected to produce at least one accredited journal article per year. The new measures call for a set of penalities for non-compliance to be drawn up.

The proposals come in the wake of a sustained increase in individual research publications since 2004 which has been attributed to a successful research incentive scheme introduced in 2003 (see box). In 2004, letters from university management were reportedly also sent to a number of individual academics asking them to account for not having completed their PhDs, and another asking them to explain their lack of publications.

According to deputy vice-chancellor for research, knowledge production and partnerships Professor Johan Jacobs, the university is intent on “fostering and entrenching” a research culture at the institution. “We are not just a teaching university. We are first a research-led university and we want to hold on to our current position,” he said.

But at what cost? That’s the question on the lips of many academics who regard the university’s approach to productivity matters as further evidence of a “big stick” and managerialist approach to academic matters. As one academic, who declined to be named, said: “You can’t create knowledge through bureaucratic measures such as incentive schemes, threats and bizarre communications through e-mail. You have to create a conducive and exciting environment for sustained knowledge production and learning.”

Others have raised concerns that emphasis on research will result in an undervaluing of teaching activities, particularly given the educational priorities facing the country. Others are concerned that the quality of research produced may suffer if already-overburdened academics face prescriptive measures.

The proposals around PhDs, due to be effected from January next year, are not unprecedented in the world of academia and were foreshadowed by an earlier communiqué in April to which UKZN vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba appended a news article in which it was reported that Nigerian university lecturers had until 2009 to get their doctorates, or face the axe.

Makgoba declared the article’s content “self-explanatory” and described the move by Nigeria as a “decisive approach on how to address the critical issue of low qualification and mediocrity at its universities”. According to Makgoba, 37% of UKZN academics possess doctorates. The institution’s strategic plan states that the university expects 70% of permanent academic staff to have PhDs by 2016.

Jacobs said the university is “sympathetic” to the pressures on lecturers to teach, supervise, do administrative work and research, and attempts to support staff are reflected in the new proposals.

But the university is also under pressure to address what Jacobs called the “disturbingly high” drop-out rate at masters and PhD levels and to raise its current per capita publications, which, although rising, is still lower than most of the top universities. Part of the challenge facing UKZN and other institutions is that the majority of those academics doing the publishing are over 50 years of age and are nearing retirement.

The new proposals contain a number of suggestions for improving support to staff trying to obtain their PhDs. These include reduced teaching loads, mentoring programmes, and help with obtaining research grants, and with the preparation of conference papers and articles for publication. There is faculty funding for research capacity building according to the numbers of staff studying for doctoral degrees, and support mechanisms for postgraduate students. There’s also a suggestion that retired staff be used to supervise and mentor postgraduate students.

The university’s productivity goals are in line with a national drive to increase doctoral graduates through initiatives such as the National Research Foundation’s South African PhD project, launched late last year. South Africa reportedly produces 23 PhDs per year per million of the population, far below the number needed to support a competitive knowledge-based economy. Jacobs said the national aim, which he admitted is “ambitious”, is to increase the number of PhDs from 1 200 to 6 000 over the next 10 to 15 years.

The doctoral degree is generally acknowledged as the pinnacle of academic qualification, an indicator of research proficiency and one’s contribution to the development of new knowledge, although less so in professional disciplines such as law, teaching or architecture.

One academic without a PhD, who declined to be named, described management’s attitude towards academic staff without PhDs as “contemptuous”. “What about those highly productive, scholarly people without PhDs who are fantastic teachers, who have made enormous contributions to their field, stimulated applied research and in some cases have been seconded to government teams as experts?” she asked.

Academics are divided on whether the holding of a PhD necessarily improves teaching and is a reliable indicator of quality. Professor of Education Volker Wedekind says that “generally speaking, it [the PhD qualification] tells you something about the kind of staff you have.” He said in his experience, people who are actively researching bring a “certain energy” to the lecture theatre. “So my own feeling is that if this is managed properly it can benefit the teaching enterprise,” he said.

While none of the academics canvassed questioned the need for universities to produce quality research, many were concerned that a mechanistic approach to knowledge production will promote a culture of credentialism, place greater emphasis on quantity and delivery instead of quality, and ultimately limit creativity.

Education professor Robert Morrell described the recent measures as authoritarian, if seen in the wider institutional context. “UKZN is an institution driven by policies that threaten and cajole in a climate that is infused with fear and hesitation because of well-publicised cases in which the university has taken disciplinary steps against its own staff ... While I believe that any university has an obligation to produce knowledge, the forms in which such knowledge is now being prescribed certainly have the danger of limiting creativity and the research enterprise more broadly.”

Morrell said the new measures also seem to carry the message that academics are “wasting taxpayers’ money by not being research active, or simply sitting idly in their offices”. “This is a very long way from the lived reality of most academics.”

Another lecturer who declined to be named argued that the university’s attitude which seems to blame individual staff for not doing their PhDs is “unfair”. “Those pushing research don’t understand what teaching means. We are dealing with different students from those of 10 or 15 years ago. Developing language and writing skills isn’t strictly my job, but I try to help. If I didn’t, then our students wouldn’t get through to post-graduate level. This means less time for my own research. The way the system works now means that those students can’t be my problem anymore. I have to choose.”

Education professor Iben Christiansen said it would make sense to focus less on publications and “research for the sake of research and more on making a difference in our schools or our own teaching.

“Several of my colleagues ... choose to focus on making a difference in communities instead of writing papers which make little difference to the bigger picture. It means that promotion is very unlikely and they are now being warned that there will ‘be consequences’,” she said.

Another lecturer said UKZN budget cuts mean staff are being expected to do more for their students with fewer resources. She pointed out that the strategic plan sets a goal of an 85% pass rate in all modules by 2016.

“And now we also have to produce more research. Can we really be all things?” she asked.


Research at a glance

While a rise in staff numbers since the 2004 merger which united the universities of Natal and Durban-Westville will have contributed to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s national rating, figures from the university’s research office confirm an upward trend in individual productivity levels that goes beyond sheer numbers.

Average publications by individual academics has risen steadily over three consecutive years – from 0,51 in 2004 to 0,68 in 2006.

Between 2005 and 2006, book production also rose by 17,5%. Under the research incentive scheme, an article in an accredited journal puts R21 000 into an academic’s research fund to be used for conference attendance and research costs. A book will earn him or her R35 000. A “creative contribution” (anything from a ceramic art work to a choreographed dance production) which receives international recognition earns R17 500.

The university has also seen a reversal in the trend of greater productivity from science disciplines. “For the first time, [publication numbers from the] humanities has overtaken the sciences,” said Jacobs.

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