UP researchers lead project to develop Africa’s doctoral graduates into future intellectual leaders

Posted on April 17, 2019

The University of Pretoria’s (UP) Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe recently opened the first workshop of the Peer-Learning for Emerging Researchers’ Knowledge and Advancement (PERKA) initiative, held at the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa. Professor Frans Swanepoel of UP’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship is the project lead and Dr Melody Mentz-Coetzee, its senior researcher.

“We at the University of Pretoria are honoured to be collaborating on this important initiative,” Prof Kupe said. “In fact, this initiative is of pertinent strategic relevance to what we as an institution see as our role in co-creating Africa’s futures for the 21st century.”

As efforts to increase PhD production in Africa begin to yield results, it has become necessary to consider the mechanisms through which to nurture young doctoral graduates into becoming future intellectual leaders.

With the continued dominance of a doctorate-by-thesis approach in Africa, a PhD qualification alone cannot provide the broad range of knowledge and skills required for a successful academic career. Furthermore, the immediate post-PhD period is particularly precarious for African academics in light of scarce resources for research and obligations for teaching and administrative functions.

One of the mechanisms for developing the research careers of young academics is postdoctoral fellowships. Although the postdoctoral model has had notable successes in building research capacity in other contexts, it is not yet widely implemented in Africa. There is also very little documented, evidence-based understanding of the factors that enable (and the characteristics of) successful postdoctoral fellowships that are context-relevant for Africa.

PERKA is one initiative that seeks to close this gap. The two-year programme is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and implemented (and co-funded) by the NRF in collaboration with UP’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York is one of the global philanthropic funders that has started to focus investments to support postdoctoral fellowships in Africa. Currently investing in nine programmes across the continent, the organisation has taken the initiative (through PERKA) to bring programme leaders together to learn from one another about context-relevant approaches in early-career researcher development to improve and strengthen their own practices.

From a knowledge-generation perspective, PERKA is investing in studying successful postdoctoral fellowship models implemented in other parts of the world and engaging with stakeholders who are implementing and funding postdoctoral fellowships in Africa. This is being done to develop and document a contextualised understanding of good practice for successful postdoctoral fellowship programme design and funding in Africa.

In his inaugural address at UP, Prof Kupe highlighted that the university’s future research directions lie in pursuing more inter-, multi- and transdisciplinary research to solve Africa’s challenges through joint research on African issues, and that UP would be increasing the number of postdoctoral fellowships at the institution from 253 to 500.

The PERKA workshop was the first in a series of three meetings, which will be rotated between South, East and West Africa over the next two years. PERKA will culminate in 2020 with an International Convening on Higher Education Capacity Enhancement and will include both beneficiaries from the regions and global policymakers. This will be a high-level event, with plenary panels and extensive discussion on the topic. The meeting is intended to make an evidence-based case for increased and significant investment and support for postdoctoral fellowships on the continent.

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