R165m partnership to fund black academics

2018-03-11 06:00

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Reaching out to struggling students is what makes Pinkie Ntola go to sleep with a smile on her face every night.

The 33-year-old is a full-time postgraduate student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, but still finds time to help students at Durban University of Technology (DUT) get internships and jobs.

Ntola, a chemistry lecturer, knows students’ struggles after having to drop out for two years, unable to pay her fees. She has gone beyond DUT’s policy that requires lecturers to find internships for students.

“I’ve managed to get 100% placement for internships for my students between 2010 and 2017. This year, only three have yet to be placed out of a class of about 80 students. I think this is my gift,” she said.

Ntola was among the first cohort of 42 academics offered scholarships by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and FirstRand Foundation (FRF) through a sabbatical grant.

This partnership – for which R165 million has been set aside over five years – is aimed at supporting black academics further their postgraduate studies and help black South African academics become internationally recognised researchers.

These early-career academics will get help in acquiring doctoral qualifications and postdoctoral research training. This will enable them to build their research profile and attain an NRF rating, a national system where the quality and impact of a researcher’s work is evaluated by peers in their field.

Out of all NRF-rated researchers in 2016, 74% were white, 16% black Africans, 3% coloured and 7% Indian. Only 31% of the 3 392 NRF-rated researchers were women.

Black South Africans made up only 6% of NRF-rated researchers and, of these, only six achieved an A rating – recognition that they are world leaders in their research fields.

Ntola applied for the grant last August and squeezed her application in at the last minute after a colleague told her about it.

“My family had to eat take-aways. I had so much to do in a very short space of time,” she said.

The grant came at a perfect time for Ntola, who was looking for a sabbatical scholarship to pursue her PhD in chemistry.

As a lecturer, she has to juggle work between classes and laboratories. She has to juggle family commitments between her husband Vuyolwethu (33), who is from a royal house in Bizana, Eastern Cape, and her two children.

“I really want to thank NRF-FRF. I will not disappoint. I will complete it in three years,” she said.

Ntola grew up in a single-parent household with five siblings. Her mother, Nomaphelo (71), a former nursing assistant, earned R1 500 a month.

She dropped out after her first year of a Bachelor’s of Biological Science at the University of Transkei because she couldn’t afford her fees. After two years, a friend told her that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme was available at DUT and her fees would be covered. When she arrived in 2006, without having applied, she enrolled for analytical chemistry. Her friend’s brother gave her the R850 she needed to register. Her mother paid it back. Ntola lived with eight other students in a one-bedroom flat close to campus. Her mother gave her R700 a month, of which R450 went towards rent and R250 for everything else.

“When I was a student, I used to have few clothes, a couple of jeans, sneakers and T-shirts. That didn’t bother me because I knew what I wanted. Students need to always remember where they come from. Others don’t have financial problems so they can fail many times. They should think about their circumstances. They need to respect their parents. I believe I’m blessed because I respect my mother.”

Doctoral scholarship applicants have to be younger than 40, while postdoctoral students must be younger than 45.

FRF chairperson Sizwe Nxasana said higher education data shows a need for a programme for black South African academics to become nationally and internationally recognised.

NRF chief executive Molapo Qhobela said the need for black postgraduates is more acute because of South Africa’s history and demographic profile.

Read more on:    education

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