Equity development programmes (part 1): "Just as you start to grow they cut you down"
For the past three years S&T have been tracking the progress participants have been making in equity development programmes (EDPs) at four South African higher education institutions. The EDPs have taken many different forms, but they typically have the central objective of developing a new generation of female and black academics. Programmes differ significantly in terms of duration, management, funding and focus although they tend to recruit participants who are either at the post-graduate or post-doctoral level and the programme usually supports the participant for the first couple of years of their academic career to ensure they are retained (Cloete & Galant, 2004).
This article provides a short summary of the participants' overall impressions of the EDP experience. In the next edition we will focus in more detail on the following aspects of EDPs – Planning; Institutional Co-ordination and Administration; Recruitment and Selection; Supervision and Mentoring; Teaching and Research; Studying Overseas; Future Plans. In so doing we will share several lessons gleaned from our observations of these programmes.
Overall Impressions of the EDP Experience 1
A key objective of EDPs is to develop new academics from disadvantaged backgrounds. It would appear that this objective may well be met: the participants in these programmes are predominantly from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, and the vast majority of participants indicated that establishing an academic career was the primary reason for applying to these programmes.
By and large, participants have enjoyed the experience, found it stimulating and were likely to remain in academia in the foreseeable future. Strong relationships had developed between supervisors and supervisee which were typically seen as positive and had therefore heightened the supervisees' enjoyment of the experience. Other common positive aspects of EDPs included the time spent overseas.
However, most of the participants were mystified about the aims and objectives of their EDPs. Moreover, they were puzzled as to how their EDP fitted into their institution's vision, and they were equally confused as to the relationship between the aims and objectives of their departments and the vision of their institution.
Participants were largely convinced that there was a substantial gap between the mission and vision of their department and those of their institution. In addition, there was a feeling amongst some participants that the racism problems they encountered on a daily basis on campus 2 were largely the result of institutional leadership failing to communicate clearly the institution's vision, in particular the institution's commitment to non-racialism.
Nevertheless, participants' experiences on the respective campuses appear to have been different. For some, being on the campus ‘is a challenge in itself every day', whereas others felt their institutions had made considerable effort in dealing with issues of racism:
Every institution has an office where we can raise concerns about racism or sexism on campus, so people know they must not call us names….for this reason I think I have been welcomed onto this campus and I have not had any problems with people
For those who were not treated as well, they spoke of how they faced race-based challenges on a daily basis:
I could see that people resented me being there….one minute I was a student and the next thing I was a member of staff. They felt threatened and they think I am here to take their job away from them… You face a lot of rejection from the department.
A few participants did speak of ‘being treated differently' by colleagues. In some instances this was seen to be supportive, in other instances this treatment was seen to be problematic:
In my Department, yes. I think, honestly, my Director was very supportive in recommending that I apply for the PhD. He was already grooming me to fit into the Centre, so he already had a little spot for me. Other fellows were not really wanted in their Department. One of the Fellows graduated last year and she unfortunately had to seek employment somewhere else as there was no space for her in her department.
I'm probably the exception. When have meetings with others, they have expressed their concerns, that they are not getting the support that they desire or that they should be getting from their supervisor. So yes, like I'm saying, I'm from the fortunate ones if I compare myself to the others. They have had a lot of problems not getting the proper supervision, … which I think is also mainly a lack of an understanding of the programme, what it entails, what the supervisors'/mentors' responsibilities are. They have absolutely no idea what is expected of them... They [the supervisors/mentors] should undergo some sort of training or course on what the foundation expects from them and their responsibilities.
Based on the overall impression participants have of their respective EDPs two observations can be made:
- One, there is a perception amongst many participants in their respective EDPs that entry into the programme guarantees an academic post. If this is not the intention of these programmes then the expectations of participants needs to be better managed in order to ensure that the aspirations of these new academics is not dashed prematurely.
- Two, a number of participants felt that the support they are receiving is not optimal. It is essential that participants have support from both their supervisor and from the institution. Linked to this is the need to establish a ‘critical mass' of participants who can provide support to each other in order for them to share and discuss common experiences.
1 This section is adapted from a paper by Smith, MJ (2004), incorporated into Cloete, N & Galant, J. (2004). Capacity Building for the Next Generation of Academics: Review Report for Carnegie Corporation. Unpublished Report, CHET.