Achieving an acceptable demographic mix for our Faculty academic and PASS staff is central to the long-term strategic objectives of the Science Faculty, and an imperative that is, and must be, taken seriously. Nevertheless, our current situation in regard to academic staff demography remains extremely poor, mitigated somewhat by a significantly better situation amongst PASS staff. Addressing this vexing issue has occupied the collective minds of the Science Faculty for many years, but in particular over the past 10 years with the start of The Atlantic Philanthropies employment equity programme (discussed below) initiated by the then Dean of Science, Professor Daya Reddy. As arguably the top Science Faculty on the continent, and one that is a core contributor to UCT’s ranking in the top 150 in the world, the quality of our staff, both academic and PASS, is of paramount importance if we wish to retain our competitive edge, and thus the challenges to find suitable candidates for appointment are not insignificant. Moreover, once appointed there is competition to keep academic staff, in particular from factor of head-hunting by competitors who recognize the high quality of our staff and who have the same transformation imperatives, but also due to the high expectations of staff by the Faculty in regard to teaching and research competitiveness compared to other South African universities.
The starting point for our equity plan is the philosophy that we wish to retain an international benchmark for quality so as to continue contributing as a Faculty to UCT’s reputation as the premier university on the African continent, respected throughout the world. A direct implication of this philosophy is that progress towards an improved demographic balance, specifically for the academic staff, is likely to be slow. Indeed in the context of our Faculty this challenge relates to appointments of any South African, irrespective of demographic group: for example, only 20% of academic appointments over the past 3 years – largely at entry level, have been South African of any persuasion. There are many serious impediments to significant change over the short to medium term which, together with some recent university strategies (such as budget cuts) that work in direct opposition, must be borne in mind. These issues are summarized below to provide a realistic context, and need to be read in that spirit and not seen as excuses to avoid change. The Science Faculty deeply wishes to have a staff cohort more reflective of the South African people. It will, however, take time to get there.
Given that the academic staff profile is so much worse than the PASS staff profile, much of the discussion below relates to academic staff which is seen as the more urgent and intractable matter. Nevertheless, targets to improve the situation amongst PASS staff are also discussed.
A number of important factors militate against significant change in the Science Faculty’s demographic profile in the short term – viz. the next five year period. In developing a meaningful plan for this period it is thus necessary to be realistic and the following needs to be taken into consideration. These are not offered as excuses, but are realities that must be recognized.
a) The pool of South African applicants who meet the Faculty’s expected academic standards is extremely small, and the pool of appointable black South Africans remains even smaller. An academic career is not attractive to most people, even amongst the brightest. To survive successfully in academia is not easy and requires a combination of intellect and aptitude that many don’t have. A further reduction in pool size results from the fact that most posts are advertised in sub-fields of a discipline, chosen to serve operational/strategic needs of the department in either teaching or research (for example, a post in Biological Sciences, might seek an eco-physiologist which would decrease the pool of potential appointees even further).
b) The University strategy to decrease its operating budget over the next four years has forced the Science Faculty to freeze posts. This current climate thus provides little leeway to make many appointments. In detail, there are likely to be only 10 academic posts filled as a consequence of known retirements over the next four years, and based on the past 11 years, the Faculty can expect on average two resignations per year. In total, there may thus be 20 posts in total advertised over the next five years, all at junior level to effect the required savings. These 20 posts will need to be filled against specific sub-disciplines and each will therefore draw on an extremely small pool of potential applicants.
c) As a top international university, standards are high and appointees need to be able to compete internationally. It is noteworthy that despite South Africans making up 63% of the academic staff body, 80% of A-, B- and P-rated researchers in the Faculty are foreign nationals.
d) Since a PhD is generally a minimum requirement for appointment in the Faculty, the pool of PhDs graduating from the Faculty is of relevance. The Science Faculty has graduated 310 PhDs over the past five years, 5% of these have been Black African South Africans, 8% Coloured and 3% Indian. These figures contrast with the 44% international students who graduated. Relative to the demographic breakdown, the gender profile is considerably better at 42% female. If averaged across the Faculty in the past five years, each department (broad discipline) has managed to graduate just 1.5 Black African South Africans. Placed in context, of the 124 white South Africans who graduated with PhDs from the Faculty during this period, only one has gained employment at UCT post PhD.
e) Black academic staff are regularly poached by other tertiary institutions or councils. Over the past 10 years amongst these are at least four Black African and one Coloured South African. This makes it very difficult to meet targets set, although in the bigger picture we are contributing to growth of this sector nationally.
f) For many graduating black South Africans the lure of higher salaries and status offered by the commercial sector is high, given in many cases their disadvantaged backgrounds. That Science does not have an obviously linked profession, as found in Law, Health Sciences and Engineering, only exacerbates the situation.
Finally, it needs to be borne in mind that it takes time to (i) develop a pool of potential appointees, and (ii) to develop a career, particularly in academia, but also to rise through the ranks in the PASS arena. Senior positions will thus be most difficult to fill, and we feel that at this stage it is more important to focus on improving the overall demographic profile, rather than fine-slicing target numbers according to rank.
Of importance, is that there are a number of very successful Black African and Indian academic staff in the Faculty who are international. While they don’t contribute formally to our legislative requirements, they do provide excellent role models and contribute importantly to the overall diversity of our staff.