New head wears many hats

28 September 2009

Shivani RamjeeShivani Ramjee's appointment as head of the actuarial sciences section in the School of Management Studies is a milestone in many ways.

At just 30, Ramjee is the first woman and the first black person to lead the section. Notable, yes - but Ramjee wants to concentrate on other matters, such as leading the section and juggling her roles as administrator, academic (much of her research has been on the numbers behind medical schemes) and mother.

Obvious one first - the popular image of actuaries is that of number-crunchers who make a mint. Is this true, and if so, why did you turn to academia instead? What's the attraction?

Yes, actuarial professionals do earn well. The potential to contribute positively to South Africa and to the actuarial profession drew me to academia. I love teaching, and I believe we have an important role to play in producing mathematically skilled graduates who are well prepared for the commercial environment and its challenges.

The potential for an exciting, intellectually stimulating research career is also very attractive.

One would assume that actuarial science is a career monopolised by white men, yet it would appear that half the faculty in the section are women. Did you ever feel as if you were the odd black woman out in the field?

A third are women (two women, four men). And no, I didn't feel like the odd black woman out in the field (even though I clearly am!). Perhaps it's because all actuaries go through the same rigorous training - you are treated with respect regardless of your gender, or the colour of your skin. I've always felt able to contribute positively to my work environment, and I'm comfortable enough in my own skin for it not to bother me.

Much is said of the negative impact that motherhood has on career opportunities for women. Do you feel that tug of war between work and motherhood?

I love being a mother, and having the career that I do. Both are extremely fulfilling, but in different ways. There is no doubt that the demands on your time can be stressful, but I strive to be fully present and give of my best at work when I'm working, and at home when I'm with my little one.

What are the priorities of the section at the moment?

The key priorities of the section are:

  • Ensuring our readiness for presenting the new courses required for the new local actuarial qualification;
  • Growing our postgraduate programmes (including enhancing our supervision capacity);
  • Enhancing our contribution to the transformation of the profession - one of the new initiatives under way is that from 2010 we will be offering an academic development programme specifically for actuarial science students.

What are the immediate challenges for the head of section and, more specifically, for you?

I see my immediate challenge as freeing up capacity within the section - the staff need breathing space to be innovative, and to spend the necessary time on research. This means greater efficiency, managing down the administrative loads carried by academic staff, and ensuring that teaching loads are fairly shared. We will also be recruiting more staff to assist with the local education offering.

It's been said that actuaries are there to manage risk. How do you think the job has been shaped or reshaped by the current economic crisis?

I think it's too early to say - the profession is still in the process of being reshaped. I do think that the area of enterprise risk management will become a bigger part of professional education as a result.

Why the interest in medical schemes?

I'm attracted to the dynamic nature of healthcare financing and the constant challenges faced by the sector, particularly in managing the cost of care. I strongly believe in the principle of universal access to quality healthcare, and in the powerful role effective financing of care can play in enhancing access.

What's your first major task as head of actuarial sciences at UCT?

I wish there was just one major task! First up is the recruitment of new staff to take us into 2010. We are so excited about the move to a local qualification, and it's important that we have the right staff in place to enable the transition.

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