With a corps that is 82% white and almost 78% male, the actuarial profession in South Africa faces formidable transformation challenges. UCT's Shivani Ramjee, with the support of professional associations and mentorships, is working to change this.
In the actuarial sciences, an amalgam of advanced mathematics and statistics, UCT's Shivani Ramjee is rare as hen's teeth. In 2009 she became the first woman and the first black professional to head up actuarial science in the commerce faculty's School of Management Studies.
As with many developing countries, South Africa has too few qualified actuaries (mirroring a worldwide shortage). Fewer than 1 000 are registered here. Much of the progress in guiding black and woman actuaries through to qualification, via a rigorous and highly competitive degree, rests on a coherent – if not resolute – transformation programme with mentorship at its core.
Transformation was top of Ramjee's to-do list when she became section head and will remain a priority for her successor.
"We have a clear strategy to guide our role in meeting transformation objectives," says Ramjee. "Our approach is integrated; we look at the students' financial, academic and psycho-social needs as well as the need for diversity in our academic staff."
They work closely with the South African Actuarial Development Programme (SAADP) where Ramjee is a board member and UCT is the institution of choice for SAADP scholarship holders. In 2012 ten of the 12 first-year scholarship holders chose to study at UCT.
"It's a highly successful scholarship programme that's produced more than 130 black actuarial graduates and 13 black qualified actuaries," adds Ramjee.
She and Billy Enderstein, who heads up a SAADP office in UCT's actuarial science department, are driving these initiatives. They have both been singled out for their personal contribution to transformation.
On 4 September, UCT's actuarial science hosted their inaugural transformation conference together with the Association of South African Black Actuarial Professionals (ASABA). This follows on from the 2013 ASABA University Award received by UCT for its role in accelerating professional transformation.
ASABA's mentorship programme is also playing transformative role, pairing actuarial students with mentors in the marketplace. This kind of mentorship – which incorporates career awareness and networking – gives previously disadvantaged students better understanding and insight into the workplace.
Contributing toward transformation is the Faculty of Commerce's nationally respected Education Development Unit, which has offered a spread of student support to actuarial science students since 2010.
Intake has multiplied from fewer than 10 students in 2010 to over 90 in 2014, close to one-third of the overall actuarial science first-year intake. But, as a notoriously well-paid profession, there's not a lot to attract many to frugal academia, where preparation starts for the supply chain.
The team at UCT is "extensively involved" in the Actuarial Society of South Africa, with board and council representation. They've also played an important role in the localisation of actuarial education. Before 2010, local actuaries obtained their qualification through the UK professional body. Since then the local profession has been able to offer its own qualification.
There is also a research path to qualification, offering students the choice of submitting a dissertation in the final stage of their professional qualification.
"This has great potential for building research and attracting people back to academia," says Ramjee. "It also means we can teach students content that it relevant to practising in South Africa. Awareness of the local context is invaluable in developing solutions for the poor. As an example, a UK-trained actuary has very little exposure to social security, social-solidarity principles or micro-insurance."
They also participate in a sweep of teaching and learning initiatives that tap into student diversity and grow graduate competencies relevant to South Africa. Tutors and guest lecturers are appointed with an eye on diversity.
She's upbeat about ASABA's contribution to this process. The association didn't exist when Ramjee was a student at UCT.
"I wish it had!" she jokes. "They play a critically important role in driving transformation in the actuarial profession – and providing a voice for black actuaries in a notoriously competitive field. We can't underestimate the powerful effect of role models and 'safe' spaces provided by ASABA."
Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Je'nine May.
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