Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS
Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

The department of higher education, science and technology wants to ensure that universities receive all the necessary support to recruit, develop and retain academic staff.

The academic skills shortage in SA remains a major problem. Universities have, in recent years, haemorrhaged highly qualified lecturers, especially during the often violent Fees Must Fall protests, which prompted some academics to search for greener pastures in the private sector or abroad.   

This has left vacancies in some crucial departments, such as health sciences, engineering, and information systems — which offer key degrees needed to address the skills deficit often seen as the biggest constraint to business growth.   

The government is also concerned about the shortage of black academics. In 2017, the higher education department announced that it would appoint a task-team to investigate the shortage of black academics in the sector. About 66% of all university professors in 2015 were white, more than two decades into democracy, higher education minister Blade Nzimande pointed out at the time.

In a written response to a question from the Freedom Front Plus published in parliament this week, Nzimande said the appointment and retention of personnel at universities is the responsibility of each institution. However, the department intends to support universities to recruit, develop and retain academic staff.

Nzimande said the department will upscale specific programmes meant to boost the number of academics as funding becomes available. These include the new generation of academics programme that assists universities in appointing and developing new academics in areas of need, including in critical and scarce skills areas. To date, 473 posts have been allocated, and 100 new posts will be allocated every year, said Nzimande.

The university staff doctoral programme supports existing academics in achieving doctoral degrees so they can progress more rapidly along the research and teaching career trajectory, and is also another key focus area, the minister said. The programme was initiated in 2018 and approximately 200 academics are currently being supported, with a further 60 to be recruited in the coming months.

Freedom Front Plus MP Wynand Boshoff asked Nzimande whether his department has any plans in place to retain the services and skills of academics, including academics who have reached retirement age, for the benefit of the country in general and for their specialist academic fields in particular.

Nzimande said the majority of universities have a normal retirement age of 65. Most of the institutions allow post-retirement employment for a further three years (some on contract and some as deferred retirement) in selected cases where expertise is required, and under specific conditions. This post-retirement employment is specifically allowed to enable the retention of scarce and critical skills, said Nzimande. 

“However, retaining critical and scarce skills after retirement age is not a long-term, sustainable solution, and efforts have to be made to strengthen the academic staff pipeline to ensure there are academics who can competently replace those who retire.” 

phakathib@businesslive.co.za