AAUN researchers work for consistent pipeline of talent for African academia

Researcher Profile: Dr Mignonne Breier (UCT) and Dr Lorraine Towers (University of Sydney): working for a step-change in higher education to ensure a consistent pipeline of talent for African academia

Many African countries are increasing their intake of doctoral students, but do not have enough academics with PhDs to supervise them. The continent needs a step-change in higher education to address the issue of under-qualification of academic staff and ensure a consistent pipeline of talent for African academia.  In Australia, a much higher proportion of academics hold PhDs, but specific fields face similar issues of under-qualification.

“Our vision is to do research that will help countries to upgrade the qualifications of existing staff and ensure a pipeline of new doctoral graduates” says Cape Town’s Dr Mignonne Breier who joins Dr Lorraine Towers (Sydney) and Professor Chaya Herman (Pretoria) in an AAUN seed funded project ‘Academics without doctorates’.

Dr Breier has recently visited The University of Sydney to complete the analysis and write-up of the Australian component of the research project.

The team has delivered a version of this paper Doctoral rites and liminal spaces: academics without PhDs in South Africa and Australia at the 40th annual conference of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific, held at the University of South Australia in Adelaide on 23 and 24 November 2017.

The paper has been published in Higher Education Quarterly, please view via this link. If this is not working (due to publisher’s terms and conditions) please use this link.

AAUN had the pleasure of meeting the two Principal Investigators and seized the opportunity to learn more about this collaboration.

How to develop the next generation of academics and researchers

Dr Breier: ‘How to develop the next generation of academics and researchers’ was identified as an important topic for research in South Africa at an AAUN workshop in Pretoria in 2014.

More than two decades after the advent of democracy in 1994, South African academics are still predominantly white, forming 63% of the academic workforce, when whites form only 8% of the population.  The next generation of academics has to be more demographically representative.  It also needs to be better qualified.

Currently, only 43.8 percent of permanent academics at South African universities have PhDs. There is also a widespread shortage of PhD qualified academic staff in other African countries, so the question is important for the continent too.  The University of Cape Town (UCT) took the lead in developing a proposal for seed funding and inviting interested researchers from AAUN partner universities to collaborate.

The application was successful and we used the funding to hold a workshop in Johannesburg attended by researchers from the Universities of Cape Town, Pretoria, Sydney and Mauritius.  Here we resolved to do research that could have relevance for institutional and national policies on the upgrading of academic staff qualifications as well as the theory on doctoral education.  We decided to include Australia despite the fact that there are much higher proportions of academics with PhDs here, because we know this country faced similar issues when colleges were merged with universities and college staff had to upgrade their qualifications.  We also know that there are some specific fields where the issue is also important.

One of your objectives is ‘a step-change in higher education to ensure a consistent pipeline of talent for African academia’. How are you working towards this? Do you find that your outcomes support your vision?

Our research so far is small scale and preliminary but it does indicate the extent of the problem in South Africa and shows that it is complex matter to which there is no single solution.  There are many different reasons why certain staff might not have attained their PhDs, or are having difficulty achieving them and no single way to support them to graduate. We hope to make recommendations that will be useful to institutions and government, which is currently providing a lot of funding for doctoral study for black South African academics without PhDs.

What role does the Australia Africa Network (AAUN) play in your work?

This research would not have happened without the support of the AAUN which brought the team of researchers together in the first place and the seed funding it has provided.

Some of the researchers who formed part of the initial group were not able to continue their involvement due to other commitments, but three of us – Mignonne Breier (UCT), Lorraine Towers (USyd), and Chaya Herman (UP) – have persisted and have benefited from all the interactions, including some of the AAUN forums in Australia and South Africa.

Your collaboration has been fruitful, and you are taking it further forward. Do you have any advice for fellow (AAUN) researchers who have just started their project? Any ‘keys to success’?

We highly recommend research collaborations across two or more countries. Comparison highlights through difference the trends which one might otherwise not notice.
One can also benefit from the varied perspectives of researchers from different disciplines and national contexts.

Make use of any opportunities which the AAUN can provide for the research team to meet physically.  Email, skype and teleconferences are useful but there is nothing to beat a face to face meeting. But make sure the project works towards publications.

In this way one’s deliberations and research can reach a wider audience – academic and non-academic – and make a contribution to national and international conversations.  If you publish from the research you are also more likely to be leverage further funds from other sources, which might enable you to meet more often or extend your study.

For more information about AAUN funded research projects, see the AAUN annual reports.