Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, has cast the spotlight on investing in young scholars, as a number of academics in public universities are nearing retirement.
Citing the 2023 Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators Report, Nzimande noted that the proportion of staff over the age of 60 increased from 7.3% in 2011 to 10.4% in 2020.
“This trend implies that public universities will lose about 10% of permanent staff with doctoral qualifications due to retirement within the next five years,” he said on Thursday.
The report found that the percentage of staff aged 20 to 29 declined from 7.9% in 2011 to 5.8% in 2020.
“Although there is an increase in the proportion of staff aged 30 to 39, this increase is lower than that of staff aged over 60. Therefore, there is a need to intensify support to young academic staff through instruments such as the New Generation of Academics Programme,” Nzimande said.
He was speaking at the launch of the annual STI Report in Pretoria.
Commissioned by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), the report examines investment in research, development and innovation, STI human resources, innovation in manufacturing, digital competitiveness, and the distribution of research and development (R&D) in provinces.
NACI is a leading advisory body to government on science, technology and innovation, and provides evidence-based advice to the Minister.
Because of the department’s various programmes aimed at developing future generations of academics and building staff capacity, Nzimande said the gender gap among academic employees is gradually closing.
“The proportions of male and female researchers are approaching parity,” the Minister said.
However, he noted that the proportion of staff in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields has remained consistent over time.
“This finding is, on reflection, not surprising.
“South African academics, once appointed on a permanent basis, cannot easily be replaced. Given that the typical academic career is around 40 years, universities have often been compared to large tankers, which change course slowly, and with difficulty.”
For the percentage of staff in the STEM fields to increase in relation to non-STEM employees, the Minister believes it would require many universities to change their organisational design, creating more medical schools, engineering faculties, and larger science faculties.
He told delegates that the establishment of the new University of Science and Technology in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, is an example of the type of intervention that is required.
“The goal of increasing the numbers of graduates in science, engineering and technology (SET) has been stated and repeated in multiple national policy documents since 1994.
“Despite various initiatives over the years to increase the output of SET graduates, the percentage of SET graduates, as a proportion of all graduates, has remained unchanged over the past 12 years.”
On a positive note, indicators show some growth in black doctoral graduates in STEM fields, constituting an increase of about one-third of all doctoral graduates in 2010 to 44% in 2020.
Nzimande said the university would play a leading role in enhancing the growth of critical skills in the STEM fields needed to create jobs, boost the economy, and improve the lives of citizens.
“One manifestation of the multiple crises of social reproduction is that of gender-based violence and the subordinate position of women in society generally.
“The interrelated crises of unemployment, poverty, inequality, and social reproduction also manifest in high incidents of criminality and different forms of violence afflicting many of our communities.”
South African scientists, Nzimande said, have increased their research collaborations with other countries.
He noted that about 20% of the country’s population was counted as “extremely poor” in 2021.
Nzimande is of the view that the STI, with the country’s policy agenda, will require developing solutions to these socio-economic challenges.
“I can assure you today that through our new ten-year plan for STI, we will respond to these challenges.” – SAnews.gov.za