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How to staff higher education (decolonise the universities)

April 10, 2016

On Friday this week I found myself at a Universities South Africa (USAf) conference. This was a meeting of Vice-Chancellors and other Important People (including the Minister of Science and Technology), so I was not there as a participant, just to give some input on a project. But I got to listen in on a discussion about staffing higher education. I was struck by how predictable the conversation was. It went: we need more academics, especially black ones; no-one really wants to do this job; we design programs to try and lure people in by paying for their studies and giving them light workloads; we offer incentives to get more people into postgraduate studies; we provide extra funds to hire black staff; we want to make new black staff feel at home; the programs have some, but limited effect. I felt that the conversation was going around and around the same old, same old problems and the equally old and unimaginative solutions.

I sat there biting my tongue because the answer looks so obvious to me. If you want people to take on academic careers, you have to make the job attractive. When you are competing for skilled staff with lots of other companies, you have to design jobs in such a way that individuals really want those jobs. Highly skilled people have choices about where they work and the kinds of work they get to do. They don’t have to do jobs that are not attractive.

Making jobs attractive does not mean offering more money or even better working conditions. Jobs are attractive if the tasks that people have to do align with their interests, aptitudes and values. If you offered academic jobs that were interesting, where people could reasonably expect to succeed in doing what was asked of them, and get rewarded for doing what they love, then people would knock down the doors to apply.

The job of an academic as it is currently configured in most South African universities is simply too big. It includes staying up to date in the field or further study as well as teaching which means developing course materials, curricula, and assessments, delivery in a variety of formats, consultation times, administrative tasks related to teaching, dealing with student problems, and additional tasks like outreach activities to schools. Then there is research which includes devising research projects, finding funding for projects, project management, supervising junior researchers, writing papers and presenting papers at conferences. In addition there are the academic citizenship tasks that include committee work, external examining, reviewing work for journals and funding bodies, giving input to national projects, liaising with business and being available to talk to the press. Exhausting? Yes, and impossible to do all of it well.

It is clear that there are too many tasks to be done in a 40 hour work week, but more importantly, the range of tasks is so broad that each academic must do a lot of tasks that they are not suited for. In any job there is a certain amount of work that does not align with one’s aptitudes and preferences. This is unavoidable. But when such tasks take up large chunks of time and prevent one getting to the tasks that actually give pleasure and fulfilment, then work becomes miserable.

Because of the wide variety of tasks that are expected, academics have to make their own choices about which tasks they will actually carry out, and which rewards they pursue or forego. Those who care and want to do a good job often choose to work 50 or 60 hour weeks. This crazy job description is what puts people off being an academic. Even when we get students into honours programs they laugh at us when we suggest an academic career. Until we change the academic job description we will not recruit more people to work in universities.

I learned that the Department of Science and Technology are planning to run a survey to find out why large numbers of lecturing staff who have PhDs are not producing research. Well, I can save them the expense. These people are not doing research because (1) they are not interested in doing research or (2) they want to do research but don’t have time for that. For those that fall into the first category, no external incentives are going to make them into researchers. A colleague of mine, Chris Callaghan, investigated this in his PhD on “Organisational culture, individual values and research productivity” and concluded that higher education is:

 “…dominated by a conflict between two societal needs, one associated with increasing enrolments of students … and the other associated with the need for more research productivity. The conflict between these two needs was found to correspond with differences between individuals that relate to the extent to which they derive their primary job satisfaction from research versus teaching. Teacher-satisfied individuals were found to be significantly less research productive.”

Here is what academics are offered: You have to be both a teacher and a researcher. If you are an excellent teacher who is able to explain complex concepts, who loves students, who is diligent about administrative aspects of running teaching programs, you will be looked down on as a second class citizen because you are not a researcher. You will be the subject of surveys to understand why you are not researching, and your career progression will be severely curtailed. In universities there is no place for you to just do what you care about: teach, no matter how good you are at doing that. On the other hand, those who want to do research, who have burning questions to ask the universe, are tied up with teaching, so that they don’t get time to do the research that they really want to.

So I would like to propose a more imaginative way to solve the staffing problem in South African higher education: we recognise the need for staff to specialise by creating more types of academic jobs with more reasonable job descriptions that can attract people with appropriate aptitudes and values. We offer academics distinct career paths that focus on distinct tasks, with different expectations and different reward systems. These include the options of being a lecturer or a researcher (but not like previous “teaching track” and “research track” distinctions that were mostly used to keep women from prestigious research jobs back in the 1980s).

Imagine a scholar, well versed in a particular subject, who has a master’s degree or perhaps a PhD, and who subscribes to journals, reads widely and attends conferences to keep up to date with latest research in the field. Imagine this scholar cares about the subject matter and really wants to communicate their passion to a new generation. Imagine this scholar spends their time devising (and revising) curricula to be able to teach students about this field. They teach, they assess, they engage with students about why this field is worth learning about, they go to the school open days to inspire school-children to enrol, they write definitive text books or develop engaging online materials, they sit on the committees that consider student progress and decide on changes to the teaching programmes. Imagine that these scholars get funding to attend conferences, as participants and not as presenters, because this is recognised as part of their professional development. Imagine these scholars get recognition for the work they do in developing course materials. Imagine if their outreach activities to schools actually counted towards promotion. These scholars might follow a career path that included being a tutor, lecturer, senior lecturer, scholar, and senior scholar and once at the level of a scholar they would take on leadership positions, heading departments, schools and faculties because of their respected knowledge of the field. Over the course of their careers, such people would develop deep knowledge of their fields, but without necessarily contributing new knowledge.

Now imagine the career of a researcher; someone who is equally interested in a particular field of knowledge, but who is inspired to push the boundaries of that knowledge. This is a person who has particular insights and new ways of looking at knowledge and who has a drive to devise new knowledge, to test theories, to experiment and investigate. Such a person would complete a master’s a PhD and a postdoc while attached to a research institute or laboratory. As they move up into more senior positions they will be involved in teaching other postgraduates who are part of the research environment. Researchers will read and attend workshops to stay at the forefront of a narrow specialist field and go to conferences to present papers. They will learn to write funding proposals and run research projects. They may well be called on to give guest lectures to undergraduates, or seminars to teaching scholars to pass on new insights in the field. For researchers promotion would depend on publications, raising research funds, supervising postgraduate students and gaining recognition for their contribution to knowledge. A researcher’s career path might include being a research assistant, researcher, senior researcher, research fellow and senior research fellow. Once at the level of a fellow (nasty masculine term that), they would be expected to lead research projects and departments and institutes. These people would be expected to accumulate a lifetime of contributing to developing knowledge.

Of course people don’t fit nicely into boxes and so there might also be ways to transition between these, or better still to have many different paths. I can imagine people specialising, for example, as an assessment expert, a designer of learning materials, a research data analyst or a project manager. I can imagine a research institute wanting to hire a range of researchers – one who specialises in conceptualising the research, one who is meticulous about carrying out research, one who is good at the analysis and one who is excellent at writing and presenting research. Why should universities not have many different jobs for academic staff?

There is something to be learned here about organisational design. We are trying to run our universities on the design of Wilhelm von Humbolt. It’s a model that made sense in Europe back in the 1800s. If ever there was a case for decolonisation of the university, this is it. Let’s ditch the old European model of a university as a place where all scholars are involved in both teaching and research. Present conditions in Africa require a lot more teaching capacity. We need to have more teaching universities staffed by academic scholars who deliver excellent undergraduate and professional postgraduate programmes. And, in order to get the most out of a limited number of good researchers, let’s have a few research universities staffed by research fellows who carry out high-quality research while developing new researchers through postgraduate programmes.





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