There is a palpable sense of pride as Prof Jonathan Jansen, a distinguished professor of Education at Stellenbosch University (SU), and his team talk about the Future Professors Programme (FPP) (Phase 01), which they are facilitating on behalf of South Africa's university sector.
A national, collaborative flagship programme of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the FPP enhances the academic excellence and leadership qualities of a carefully selected group of lecturing staff at the country's 26 universities. All FPP fellows show promise of becoming leaders in their field and taking their place as part of a transformed next generation of South African professors across all disciplines.
Phase 01 is administratively based at SU, with Prof Jansen at the helm. He is flanked by lead implementers Prof Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement at the Durban University of Technology; Prof Jackie du Toit, seconded from the University of the Free State (UFS), and Prof Neil Roos, soon to be dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Fort Hare.
The programme builds on a concept for the professional advancement of mid-career academics that Prof Jansen initiated during his time as dean of Education at the University of Pretoria and refined as UFS Rector. Profs Du Toit and Roos have been part of Jansen's support team since his Bloemfontein days.
After Prof Jansen joined SU, the then Minister of Higher Education, Dr Naledi Pandor, approached him and requested that the programme be expanded. The wheels were set in motion, and the programme has already had two intakes of some 30 fellows each in 2020 and 2021. Later this year, universities will be able to nominate candidates with a view to the 2022 intake.
“That means we will have trained 90 potential professors in a short period of time. These are all top scholars who have published in journals such as Nature or Science, or who in the social sciences already have a book out," explains an enthusiastic Prof Jansen. “To be a great scholar, you must be recognised as one of the world's top five or six in your research field."
According to Prof Jansen, the FPP is designed to expose “the brightest young scholars to what the life of an intellectual is about". The concept originated from his realisation that few universities worldwide provided an adequate, systematic programme to prepare young academics to become professors. “You are taught how to become a scientist or a humanities scholar," he explains, “but you are rarely taught, trained and mentored in a systematic way to become a professor. It's always struck me as odd."
He hopes the FPP will help fellows not to make the same mistakes in their careers as he did as an emerging academic. “It is a beautiful way to take what I have learnt by trial and error, and to teach it systematically to young academics across the country." And, he admits as an aside: “At the back of my mind, it's also a rearguard action to prevent the standards of professorial performance from dropping."
Fellows are trained in the scholarship of research, teaching and service. To Prof Jansen, the scholarship of research is paramount: “If you get that wrong, the other two fall flat too.
“But, of course, you must also understand what it means to teach. It's not just about sharing information. It is very complex, and a field of study in itself, with a science behind it. Unfortunately, the scholarship of service enjoys less attention when promotions are considered. It's more than just a form of welfare; it's about putting your expertise out there. Service learning is very powerful."
Webinars, mentoring and coaching
The FPP rests on three pillars as a means of establishing a future “college" of professors in South Africa, both across universities and disciplines – a residential programme, the development of a fundable medium to long-term intellectual project, and international engagement.
In online seminars, top local and international academics address professional as well as personal aspects relating to scholarly excellence, metrics that matter to the professoriate, the purpose and place of an institute for advanced studies in the life of the scholar, and how to identify signs of burnout. Brown Bag Zoom sessions introduced in May 2020 have to date ranged from autobiographical engagements with top scholars, and discussions on the teaching challenges associated with COVID, to matters of research, and topics relevant to the future South African professoriate.
Fellows receive mentoring and group-based coaching. A gap analysis is also done along with an A-rated expert in their field to pinpoint areas of development on their journey to becoming a higher-rated academic. “We don't teach you how to write a journal article; we teach you how to edit your first journal," Prof Jansen explains the team's approach to help fellows reach the next level in their careers.
Lasting connections and networks
Programme participants had only one face-to-face get-together in Stellenbosch in early 2020 before COVID-19 struck.
“Subsequently, the team have had to change how the programme is presented and structured," says Prof Du Toit. “Because of COVID and because people are vulnerable, we have employed a coach and counsellor to help fellows address their sense of isolation and difficulty with the changes occurring at their institutions.
“Recognising that the pandemic and lockdown pose different challenges to different individuals, and that each university – and discipline – might have a unique response, we nevertheless also find among our cohort a need for a sense of community, routine, order and 'normality' in the familiar activities of academia," adds Prof Du Toit.
“The programme is about forming personal connections, networks and collaborations that will last beyond the fellowship," says Prof Roos, who describes the FPP support team as the fellows' very own “advocates".
Because of the pandemic, international placements are carefully evaluated. Prof Jansen explains why the international pillar of the programme is so important to him: “The logic behind it is to increase the scope of the fellows so that they can see more broadly, rather than being content only with the immediate. You don't become a top professor unless the company you keep consist of top professors, for instance."
He realises that some people may see the programme as a fast track to professorship. “We've already had people who were promoted, but we don't want it to happen too soon. We tell them rather to wait so that we can still work with them for a year or two, and not to let their institutions pressure them if they are not yet ready."
* The 2020 intake included SU academics Drs Margreth Tadie (Process Engineering) and Lungi Nkonki (Health Systems and Public Health), while Drs Rehana Malgas-Enus (Chemistry), Uhuru Phalafala (English) and Tongai Maponga (Medical Virology) are part of the 2021 group.
For more information, visit www.futureprofessorsprogramme.co.za.