Support for soft-funded researchers

13 February 2024 | Professor Jeff Murugan

Dear colleagues

At the University of Cape Town (UCT), we recognise the central role of research in ensuring ours is a university that delivers cutting-edge knowledge in its teaching programmes, addresses the current global challenges, and drives new knowledge generation that is both relevant to our current position in Africa and focused on a global future. Achieving this requires a thriving and high-functioning research environment which depends on our academics who are funded through the General Operating Budget (GoB), as well as our soft-funded researchers.

Soft-funded researchers play a crucial role in the success of a research-intensive university like UCT. These researchers, generally supported by external grants and contracts, bring specialised expertise and drive innovation across various disciplines. Their work contributes significantly to the university’s research output, enhancing its reputation and impact in academia and beyond.

Soft-funded researchers also play a key role in mentoring and training the next generation of researchers, enriching the academic environment, and fostering a culture of excellence in research. Their ability to secure external funding demonstrates their competitiveness and the quality of their research, further elevating the university’s standing as a centre of research excellence.

Over the past few years, we have increasingly recognised the importance of creating stability in the career paths of both early career academics and of our soft-funded academics. These have included the re-visiting of conditions of service, salary relief for soft-funded researchers during COVID-19, and the development of the Soft-funded Academic Research Staff (SFARS) policy. We would like to report on progress with the implementation of the SFARS policy.

The SFARS policy was approved by Council in October 2022, following the revision of our existing Human Resources (HR) policies to accommodate this. Consequent to this, a phased implementation plan was agreed on. In early 2023, HR business partners worked across the university to develop and validate a record of our SFARS members on permanent conditions to benefit from the policy. Completed by mid-year 2023, this data has been used to inform the roll out of the components of the policy. Furthermore, the intention is for this record to be updated in March of each year.

The principles set out within the policy acknowledge that where formal teaching duties are requested by the department to be provided by a SFARS member, the department should pay for this service at the going rate for temporary lecturing, typically through salary contribution. Postgraduate supervision that relates to the research projects on which the SFARS members are employed does form part of their substantive conditions of service, and does not carry extra payment.

The policy provides four groupings of benefits:

  • improved conditions of service
  • growth of salary security
  • contribution to salary security based on productivity
  • performance recognition.

I report below on the substance and progress with respect to each.

Improved conditions of service

Where an SFARS member on permanent conditions of service requires parental leave or long sick leave, provision has been made to contribute to either salary or leave replacement benefits through the contingency fund, thus securing SFARS members’ positions. Further, a sabbatical entitlement for permanent SFARS members has been introduced at a rate of one month per year (up to a maximum of 12 months), provided operational conditions allow. Sabbatical accumulation for permanent SFARS members in service at the time the policy was approved is being backdated to 1 January 2020. There will be no payout on termination if not used. All new contracts for permanent staff will reflect these changed conditions of service. For existing staff, the changes are being made retrospectively.

Growth of a salary security fund and contribution to it based on productivity

To develop salary security, it is recommended that a salary security fund be established for each SFARS member who has been at UCT for three or more years, or group of SFARS members working together. The establishment of these funds must be set up by the SFARS members or their principal investigators (PIs) in collaboration with the faculty finance manager. This fund will accumulate contributions to secure ongoing salary reserves to support SFARS members. These contributions can be made up of (1) payments for teaching in the mainstream teaching programmes, and (2) up to 1.5 months’ salary contribution where significant contribution to the academic enterprise of the academic department or faculty is made or (3) a contribution based on substantive research outputs, on a sliding scale based on productivity.

The first of these is already in place. The second is not yet implemented owing to budget constraints within the faculties. With respect to the third, it has been necessary to develop a reliable data source for evaluation of the research contribution to enable implementation. This is now in place for both publication outputs and PhD graduations which will be used to calculate contributions for the 2023 year, based on audited outputs of 2020–2022; and for the 2024 year based on outputs of 2021–2023, the latter once audited data is available. Data on graduation of master’s students is not yet available in an auditable manner. However, data collection has been set up in PeopleSoft from 2022, allowing its inclusion in the 2025 allocation. Furthermore, funding has been ring-fenced centrally for these contributions to the salary security funds, with implementation expected during the first semester in 2024.

For permanent SFARS members, 10% of the cost recovery earned as PI or co-PI is contributed to the salary security fund. This is set for implementation in 2024.

In order to overcome a situation of an extreme interruption of funding, a permanent SFARS member who has given UCT more than five years of service may motivate, with support of their head of department and dean, to access the UCT contingency fund while the funding situation is being resolved. Strict conditions limit the frequency and extent of such access. However, it is an important tool to enable researchers to work through unexpected funding hiatuses.

Performance recognition

It is recognised that the performance criteria guiding academic promotion needs to reflect the nature of the position: comprehensive academic, teaching-rich, research-rich or clinical-rich. In the ad hominem promotion processes of 2022 and 2023, the need to ensure that defined criteria for the research-rich career paths are in place was clearly recognised. Developing these is work-in-progress in the faculties.

Building on the tremendous work done on this by the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, Professor Sue Harrison, we continue to work towards the full roll-out of the policy, based on staged implementation initiated in 2023, and are certain that its implementation will enhance the conditions of service of our SFARS members.


Professor Jeff Murugan
Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation

Read previous communications:

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.