Family Priorities Steal Our Black Academics

2014-08-05 01:50

The media's brought to our attention a very moving story on black academics, which attracted a lot of commentary on what needs to be done to encourage black graduates to consider academia. From increased funding to improved remuneration for academics to other incentives, many South Africans have expressed their views in this regard and it’s quite heartening to note that this has been treated as a serious issue.

Nonetheless, the analysis around a lack of black professors and academics in general is incomplete in the absence of a socioeconomic consideration or background study of black students and graduates.

To understand the shortage of black academics we have to firstly interrogate the primary purpose most blacks go to universities for. And in this regard I’m arguing that most of us go to university so that we can be better positioned to find a rewarding job that will enable us to improve the conditions of our families. Education represents a key to a better life and most black students from poor backgrounds treat it as their 'saviour' from poverty and socioeconomic frustrations in general.

We study to escape the poverty zone.

When we leave our homes to come to the cities for studies our parents are not expecting doctorates or professorships from us, but a mere meal on the table, a provision for basic needs, a life bettered. We carry this mandate throughout our university undergraduate studies and a number of sacrifices are made by those left at home – in the village or township – so that we complete our three or four years of studying. The reward for their sacrifices will then be employment and an improved standard of living.

Some students know that just doing your Honour’s degree invites a lot of sceptical, disapproving comments from those at home who feel that the dream of a better life can no longer be deferred in favour of some postgraduate studies which, in the family’s reality, serve only to waste time. All we must do guided by our reality, home expectations and to a certain extent our conscience, is to finish our studies, get a job, and help our parents move out of the poverty trap. Beyond the question of obtaining advanced qualifications, this reality defining a majority of black students/graduates also means some of our personal goals have to be subjugated by the bigger picture of a collective family. We don't get our dream cars, dream houses, etc. We have a historical damage to undo.

Everything has to be modest in order for everyone to be accommodated. And that means modest academic ambitions as well.

There's already a number of blacks with matric who choose to rather go look for any job rather than pursue university studies because they feel the need to bring a change in their family conditions. So, to raise the question of full-time postgraduate studies until at least PhD level is contextually selfish, given the number of pressing priorities we have to attend to. I’m certain that most of us, black graduates, aspire to earn higher academic titles, but the reality is that chasing a doctorate while we can get well-paying jobs in the private sector with our degrees is not a wise socioeconomic approach. Our people are hungry now.

There are many black students who start out wanting to be chartered accountants. However, upon completion of the first degree in accounting science, they get tempted by job offers. Given their family conditions, they have to suspend their ambitions and respond to the critical question of family service – building a house for parents, assisting siblings with their schooling, etc. Critically important in this case is also the fact that we have to do our regulated time at university and move on so that our other siblings can further their studies as well. Having more than one member of the family at university is a great economic burden, especially when there's no income.

As if financial access to universities is not a daunting process for most black students, when inside the university system these students struggle to make ends meet, with others going to bed without anything to eat. Some don’t even survive the financial battles and as a result become casualties of financial exclusions. I’m citing this to indicate that given the hardships of accessing universities and completing their studies, black graduates from poor backgrounds are most unlikely to entertain any suggestion that seeks to plant the idea of staying longer in the university system. They want out. They want cash. They want to change their backgrounds. They have suffered enough (I include myself in this).

I understand the need for accelerated transformation to create a welcoming atmosphere for all people in formerly white universities. I fully welcome the significance of investing in students. In fact all proposed mechanisms make sense to me. Yet, I don’t think their implementation, however perfect it promises to be, is sufficient in addressing the scarcity of black academics.

The fundamental problem in my view lies in the fact that in a family where there’s no breadwinner at all, the person with the highest chances of earning an income is often compelled to put the family first.

Besides, where do you even begin to tell your ailing mother staying in a shack that you turned down a job offer for a scholarship to do postgraduate studies?

Postgraduate? What postgraduate?

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