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The university sector should consider selling the benefits of transformation rather than force or impose change. 

The university sector should consider selling the benefits of transformation rather than force or impose change. Dr Thandi Mgwebi (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Engagement at Nelson Mandela University made this proposition to an audience at a transformation webinar commemorating Women’s Month on 12 August. She suggested that the current approach could well be impeding — rather than helping transformation progress. 

The session themed Gender Transformation: should we be asking new questions? was co-hosted by Universities South Africa’s Transformation Managers’ Forum (TMF) and Higher Education Resource Services-South Africa (HERS-SA). This discussion was premised on slow progress in attaining staff diversity at universities, when viewed against the rapid changes in the demographics of the broad student population within the institutions.

As a member of the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) formulated in 2017 to probe and advise on the Recruitment, Retention and Progression of Black South African Academics, Dr Mgwebi shared her reflections on the study completed in 2020. 

First, she acknowledged the visibly increasing number of black scholars with doctoral degrees in the university sector. However, the MTT probe found that white scholars were still largely dominating the numbers in both males and females. She cited a challenge that earlier studies had highlighted around the attraction and retention of talented academics, particularly among South African blacks.  Even the MTT had not yet formulated tangible solutions to this phenomenon, at the completion of this project.

In its investigation, the MTT had looked at the postgraduate pipeline; academic staff participation and progression patterns; institutional cultures and practices; and the recruitment, retention and progress of black South African academics. They found that universities in South Africa produce doctoral graduates at varying speeds, some at distinctively high rates than others. Dr Mgwebi said if any dent were to be made on transforming the sector, it should be in the institutions producing large numbers of PhDs, especially in blacks. Those institutions should be the ones absorbing that talent for more visible diversity. 

When assessing traditional academic career progression at universities, Dr Mgwebi added that it is difficult for especially black South African academics to progress, without any support along the way.  She said after examining the data coming out of institutions, the investigation left her with more questions than answers:

  • Are the mechanisms for supporting progress along this pipeline deliberate?
  • Do they recognise the industry flows?
  • Do they care about early recognition of talent?
  • Do people have to go through this pipeline even if they are high-flyers that can be supported or meet the criteria?
  • Should the criteria even be looked at?
  • Should the support mechanisms be selective?

These are the questions that troubled Dr Mgwebi and which triggered the thought to recommend the revision of the criteria put in place for academic progression.

In a nutshell, she said the targets that have been in existence for years need thorough monitoring and consequent management. Secondly, recruitment strategies need to consider equity, as they have been opaque and vague, especially for people coming in at the lower end for doctoral degrees, for instance. Lastly, the report recommended strengthening the focus on student success. 

“If you look at doctoral graduate throughput rates by gender, we see no significant difference between male and female success rates. However, there are graphs in the report that show that the throughput rates of black graduates are much lower than those of whites. That points back to several factors, including schooling conditions, age, societal factors, and so on,” she said.

Another worrying trend, according to Dr Mgwebi, was the decrease in female doctoral graduates, especially in the engineering and natural science disciplines. She said this had implications for innovation, both technologically and in industry leadership. The MTT blamed the high dropout rate in doctoral candidates on obscure application systems, funding challenges and the scarcity of supervisory capacity, among other factors. 

The Task Team also found inequity in academic rank profiling.  “You get a lot of female academics at the lower ranks, and, in this regard, we recommended looking at strengthening the National Transformation Oversight Committee and enforcing the transformation targets for universities.

“In my view, I do not think we have enough platforms to share our transformation agenda, as universities. It is also difficult to widely share information on the interventions put in place to ensure that universities are held accountable for transformation,” she said. 

Another finding concerned alienating and exclusionary institutional cultures and practices. She said new entrants into academia cited little to no support from their institutions. Additionally, black females were experiencing overt and covert racism, sexism, and patriarchy in interactions. “This is real. Although it occurs to fluctuating degrees at institutions, it cannot be ignored,” she said. 

Touching on why it was so difficult to reach the pinnacle of academic progression (i.e. professorship), people cited various research barriers. The major one, according to Dr Mgwebi, was sufficient time to conduct research. “We have heard this many times. Because of the large number of students in our institutions, young academics come in and are inundated with teaching loads and no sufficient time for research; heavy administrative workload; and lack of money for research. In fact, people are unable to write proper proposals for research grants so that they can tap into these opportunities. It is more so now that the funding landscape is more constrained.”

Dr Mgwebi said she hoped that universities that had not yet begun to examine the report would do so and design appropriate interventions. She said her own institution, Nelson Mandela University, in looking closely at research unproductivity over a ten-year period, had found evidence that corroborated the MTT findings.  The University would next be considering interventions including providing appropriate support. It would also undertake a qualitative investigation to dig deeper into the experiences of their own academic personnel. 

Having assessed and led certain deliberations during the various analyses of the MTT, Dr Mgwebi deduced that perhaps leadership in higher education should adopt a multi-pronged approach towards transformation. On the one hand, she said leadership could persuade their constituencies, using evidence of tangible benefits and, on the other, facilitate the actual transformation. She said while she appreciated the complexity of the subject, she believed that such an approach could yield shared enthusiasm. 

Question: Are there more recent studies on the progression of Black academics? 2016 was a while back and may not be an accurate reflection of how we have progressed thus far.

Answer — There are studies that were undertaken up to 2018, that I am aware of. A big one was ‘Building a Cadre of Emerging Scholars for Higher Education in South Africa’ by CREST (Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology). However, it did not focus on black academics, even though you could sift out the data from there. It was looking more at the ranks. What came out there is highlighted in the MTT report about the profile of young academics– that they are largely in the ranks of lecturer. The numbers begin to drop at senior lecturer level, and further at professorship. 

Basically, studies highlighting the same trend that we have seen over the years take cohorts analyses, usually of not less than five years. So, if a study was done in 2017, it could be time to think of another one now. But looking at the completion rates in our higher education system where a PhD can take up to seven years, maybe it is too soon to make any conclusive study now. We will have to wait a year or two to go back and monitor. But what could be beneficial are institutional transformation reports that are submitted to the department. Those can be used for monitoring. Currently, there is no national study that is looking at this phenomenon and tracking it back, but there are indicators in the 2018 report.


Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Fort Hare, who was a respondent at the TMF-HERS SA webinar, said all the transformation challenges confronting the university sector were known to the state and to the DHET.  “Yet every time there is a problem, we set up another task team –another working group. By the time the next one gets set up, we have forgotten about the one of yesterday.”

The Fort Hare Principal advised once again that authorities abandon forming one task team after another, because the answers lie in some of the reports already submitted. “Dr Mgwebi presented that in that MTT report. The answers are there in the CGE reports.”

He said true resolution to universities’ transformation problems lay in the authorities acting on the recommendations already put forward by the various investigating bodies.  

Dr Mgwebi was one of four panellists who spoke at the inaugural TMF-HERS SA event.

Other speakers were Dr Nthabiseng Moleko, Deputy Chairperson: Commission for Gender Equity; Professor Thidziambe Phendla from the Higher Education Transformation Network and Mr George Mvalo, Chair of USAf’s TMF and Director: Social Justice and Transformation at the Vaal University of Technology. Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Fort Hare, was a respondent.

The second TMF-HERS-SA webinar, held on 19 August, explored Non-academic Staff Experiences in Higher Education, before the concluding event of 26 August, delved into Why Academic Institutions Need Ombud Services.

This article was featured on Universities South Africa's (USAF) website on 30 August 2021

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.

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