On 27 May, the Advancing Early Career Researchers and Scholars (AECRS) Programme team met with representatives from public universities in South Africa to discuss ways in which universities support early career academics (ECAs) and how they monitor their progress.

Of the 26 public universities, 24 were represented, and representatives from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) were also present.

The AECRS Programme is a DSI-funded programme hosted by Universities South Africa (USAf). It was established in 2020, following the 2018 DSI/USAf study, which sought to understand why there was a “silent majority” within universities. The term referred to academic staff members who were neither pursuing doctoral or postdoctoral studies nor publishing. The crux of this study was to establish the proportion and demographics of academics at lecturer and senior lecturer levels who were active researchers and those who were not. Furthermore, the study sought to investigate the environmental context, enablers and constraints to increasing the number of emerging researchers at sector, institutional and individual levels.

Findings of the ‘Building a Cadre of Emerging Scholars for Higher Education in South Africa‘ study revealed a range of impediments to advancing research careers in academia. Young academics cited heavy teaching and administrative loads, insufficient research time and a lack of mentors, research networks and funding – among many hindrances to pursuing doctoral studies and academic careers. These challenges were found to be endemic across the sector.

To that end, DSI funded the establishment of AECRS Programme to implement the recommendations of the study, to counter the barriers that emerging academics shared. Following a detailed mapping and consultation process, four interventions were proposed for implementation. These interventions included a national strategy group focusing on postgraduate education, an academic capacity development resource database, a nationally coordinated mentorship platform, and an effective system to monitor the impact of scholarly support provided by universities.

A Community of Practice for Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (CoP PGES) was established in 2022, as a discussion forum to support the higher education sector in postgraduate supervision, supervisory training and advocacy. On 18 May 2023, USAf launched the Thuso Resources and Thuso Connect platforms – the former is an information and tools hub for emerging academics, and the latter is an interactive, online mentorship platform. Both platforms are open access and online, hosted by USAf.

Currently, the AECRS team has been considering ways to implement the fourth intervention, which will be a framework of systems that universities can use to monitor the progress and effectiveness of their support systems for ECAs. Most universities and academic leaders have reported that while they provided support for ECAs, they had not been able to adequately measure their impact and effectiveness. Hence, one of the objectives for the AECRS Programme is to assist with such a solution.

In order to determine the path to take, the AECRS team are again consulting with universities regarding interventions they have in place as support systems, and how they monitor these tools.

Professor Stephanie Burton (left), AECRS Programme Leader, emphasised that the core of the May 27 meeting was to understand what universities need, and their expectations around monitoring and evaluation.

“We need to consider what is already available – either in the sector or in institutions individually, and we seek to partner with universities and national centres to develop this, as there is no need to duplicate,” she said.

“We seek to provide a framework that covers the currently available interventions and systems which might already be developed or partly developed and might be available for sharing.”

Professor Burton also underscored the need to map the whole higher education ecosystem to determine success enablers and enabling pathways at various academic levels. She noted that this would include individuals, their institutions and how academics progress from postgraduate to professor level.

“We need to be able to gauge this in terms of our local needs and what might be happening globally,” she said. “So, we are looking at a big system.”

How AECRS plans to develop the monitoring framework

Dr Leandra Jordaan (right), Research and Systems Consultant for AECRS, briefly presented the preliminary ideas towards implementing such a tool or framework.

“We look to have two dashboards – one where all universities can have access and view what happens in the sector. The second dashboard would be exclusively available to individual universities and their communities and be able to gauge their performance against other institutions once they have loaded their data.”

Dr Jordaan mentioned, as an example, that the data may encompass the amount of funding that universities allocate towards research funding. She said this segment would have a ballpark figure derived from collected data, and universities could see how they compared to the rest of the sector.

“We are considering utilising the Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology to source information from open documents such as annual reports, research reports, and websites,” she said.

“RPA is a repetitive tasker, and we hope through it, we will avoid burdening busy people at universities, by requesting them for information they have already submitted, and which is accessible elsewhere.”

Dr Jordaan also noted that AECRS is currently formulating questions to be shared with universities, and the information obtained from the responses will inform what goes into the framework.

“At the end of the day, we want to create something that allows us to gather information and to use it to our advantage,” she said, adding that the tool would assist universities to stay informed and assess whether their interventions are working successfully.

Learning from experts

For this meeting, AECRS invited Professor Ian Cloete (below), Specialist Project Director at Stellenbosch University, to share the learning he and his colleague discovered when they created similar models to those that AECRS seeks to develop.

Professor Cloete described two models, the Model of Effectiveness and Efficiency Model in Higher Education, which could apply to any form of programme or strategy that people may want to evaluate.

“The Effectiveness Model is built on the idea that effectiveness is doing the right things. Efficiency is concerned with doing things right. So, if you are concerned with effectiveness and want to do the right things, the question is, what are the right things to do?”

“Typically, those are the goals of the strategy that you would like to achieve. So, if you can phrase your goals in such a way that they are measurable and that you can set targets for them, then you can operationalise the Effectiveness Model by defining it as the extent to which you are fulfilling your goals.”

Relating these models to the monitoring framework or tool of AECRS, Professor Cloete advised that the programme would need to define strategies and, to some extent, themes and goals. Furthermore, key performance indices would be required, and participants would usefully be consulted.

Universities deemed such a monitoring tool essential

In the last segment of the meeting, universities representatives shared the systems they had in place to support ECAs and how they monitored their progress. The discussion included identified gaps, and how they would like to be supported within the sector.

To understand how universities were currently facilitating support for early career academics (ECAs), Professor Burton, asked the following questions:

  • What support interventions do you have in place for your ECAs?
  • Are you monitoring progress?
  • Are you measuring the impact in any way?
  • What instrument or system do you have, or would you like to be able to access to do this?

The feedback received shone light and provided insights on how AECRS can proceed with implementing this last intervention.

AECRS envisaged regional workshops

Concluding the workshop engagements, Professor Burton thanked and informed the representatives that the AECRS Programme team intends to facilitate regional workshops across the country as a way of speaking more about its initiatives. More importantly, to understand where the gaps still exist and collaboratively work out solutions.

“We will need your help to access or contact the ECAs in your institutions,” she said.

“We do not want to just wade in over the heads of anybody in your institutions. So, we would appreciate assistance and cooperation in putting us in touch with the ECAs.”

Nqobile Tembe is the Marketing and Communication Consultant for USAf’s Advancing Early Career Researchers and Scholars (AECRS) Programme.