The University of Cape Town (UCT) officially launched its Accelerated Transformation of the Academic Programme (ATAP) initiative in mid-October. The event took place virtually and saw various UCT staff members, including Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, speak about the potential the programme could unlock in the students involved.
Aimed at developing and supporting a cohort of high-performing black South African postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows with an interest in pursuing academic careers, the ATAP is intended to widen the pool of black South African candidates available for academic positions at UCT and other institutions.
The programme, which has been piloted in 2021, is funded through the office of the deputy vice-chancellor: transformation. It represents an initial investment of R44 million into a seven-year initiative that will run from January 2022 to December 2026.
Executive Director: Research Dr Linda Mtwisha, highlighted the purpose and importance of the initiative, both for UCT and the African continent. “This programme is about enhancing opportunity for young and outstanding scholars. It is aimed at strengthening career pathing (for) the next generation, while also contributing to the transformation of academia.
“We are in a unique position to make this the African century; to build the Africa of our dreams. For this, I believe we need socially conscious, capable and visionary leaders. We need thinkers and doers - people who are both critical and creative.
“In this regard, universities and most importantly, our academics play a vital role in mentoring and producing the scholars who will be the instruments of change towards the Africa we envision for ourselves,” she noted.
By instituting this programme, UCT is providing a nurturing environment in which top academics can flourish, Mtwisha added. “I believe that at the core of delivering on these aspirations is a truly diverse and inclusive community of academics who will drive a more parental approach to research and pedagogy.”
“It is not just about providing scholarships and fellowships. It is about nurturing and producing a critical mass of the next generation of black South African academics,” she said.
The genesis of the programme
Professor Phakeng echoed the sentiments of Dr Mtwisha, pointing out that although the programme has been in place since the first semester of 2021, such a momentous initiative deserved an official kicking off.
“The initiative emanates from UCT’s transformation vision; in particular, from the perspective of accelerating the transformation of academia. We at UCT have long recognised the importance of capacity-building and training with a view to transforming the current and future academic sector.
“We needed a more formal action with regard to growing the future ranks of academia”.
“That is why we have a number of initiatives that focus on the next generation of academic practitioners, for example, the Next Generation of Academic Practitioners and the Next Generation and Future Professoriate Programme. However, we needed a more formal action with regard to growing the future ranks of academia,” she said.
While she acknowledged the various initiatives that are already in place, Phakeng emphasised the need to further invest in and accelerate the transformation of the academic programme at UCT.
“In 2020, a Department of Higher Education (DHE) report on the progression of black South African academics painted a less than favourable picture of us. Of course, we had arguments in response about how many programmes we are running, but this report was not about how many programmes, but how much progress we were seeing on the ground.”
While the DHE’s report was suboptimal and not what the VC had wanted to hear, it served as the catalyst for the development of the ATAP.
“I decided to call meetings with black South African professors and associate professors to talk about what we can do and how we can get to where we need to be. We spoke about the stumbling blocks and how they got to where they are despite those stumbling blocks. That was the genesis of this programme,” she explained.
Excellence, transformation and sustainability
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison noted that academics should be thought of as working individuals who are able to make immeasurable contributions to society.
“The next generation of academics and, indeed, all academics must be thought about as working people who have a strong drive to share knowledge, to learn, to teach and to contribute to new knowledge. What’s more, we must concentrate on nurturing all of these factors in balance with each other.”
In line with this, Professor Harrison believes that the academics taking part in the ATAP should look to tackle difficult problems and build knowledge, not only to make a positive impact but also to ensure readiness for academic careers.
“I think this phase of the project is firmly focused on supporting you to build your academic profiles and your academic careers through postgraduate and postdoctoral research. I wish to emphasise that this is not only about building your resume, but also building your expertise and your experience and your skills to tackle difficult problems efficiently.
“What this means is that we should be concentrating on building knowledge and making a positive impact on society and the environment. As an academic programme, the ATAP is designed to enable a rigorous, yet short route from postgraduate study into being ready for academic careers,” she said.
In addition to furthering the careers of black South African academics, the programme has an important role in ensuring that UCT is able to achieve the goals set by the university’s Vision 2030.
“The importance of today’s launch for recognising this programme and its first cohort is a significant milestone towards not only the practical wraparound support and mentoring of black South African masters, PhD and post-doctorate fellows, but also in terms of UCT’s Vision 2030, which is anchored in three pillars: excellence, transformation and sustainability,” she concluded.
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