/ 12 November 2010

Creation of South African Einstein a thwarted aim

A prestigious institute that aims to produce a South African Einstein is struggling to find local candidates for the role and government departments that have poured millions into the search are asking why.

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (Aims) in Cape Town did not enroll even one South African in its top-end postgraduate diploma in mathematical sciences this year because the sole local applicant failed to meet admission requirements.

The institute’s record of local success since its establishment seven years ago is scarcely better: only 13 South Africans have featured among the 305 graduates of Aims’s flagship postgraduate diploma since 2003. Locals have not numbered more than four among total annual enrolments, which have varied between 30 and 60.

Aims is an initiative of three South African universities (Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Western Cape) and three overseas institutions (Cambridge, Oxford and Paris Sud XI).

It draws students from across Africa, offering a free, one-year postgraduate diploma in mathematical sciences.
It also offers masters’ and doctoral programmes in partnership with the six universities.

Aims’s “next Einstein initiative” is to establish similar centres in other African counties.

Now the departments of science and technology (DST) and higher education and training (DHET) are asking awkward questions.

Kirti Menon, DHET acting deputy general, said Minister Blade Nzimande had already “raised” the low enrolment of South African students “in discussion with Aims”.

Nzimande has made DHET funding of R12-million from this year to 2013 conditional on increasing the intake of South Africans, Menon said. This funding comes on top of nearly R10-million the DHET has already given Aims since 2007.

For its part, the DST has given Aims R13-million, but the enrolment of South African students “is not adequate”, departmental spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele said.

“The centre has not been able to achieve its targets within the South African student population.”

Aims director Barry Green said the low number of local students was a concern, but that this reflected a much larger national problem as even universities were struggling to recruit mathematics students.

The sole South African who applied for this year’s postgraduate maths diploma did not meet all the requirements, Green said.
The diploma enrolled 55 students from Africa this year.

“Another reason we don’t have many South Africans is that our academic year is different from that of local universities,” he said.

“But we are planning a two-phase entry which will accommodate more South Africans.”

Green said Aims had three “visiting” South African students this year who did a few modules at the institute and emphasised that it was contributing to science development on the continent.

“One of our first graduates is now the head of the school of mathematical statistics in Khartoum and there are many others who continued with their master’s and PhDs,” Green said.

Palesa Mokoena, the spokesperson for the state’s National Research Foundation, said the foundation was “constantly engaging with Aims and works [with it] to recruit suitable South African candidates on an ongoing basis”.

The foundation’s role as the managing agency responsible for monitoring and evaluating the institute’s activities included “the recruitment and placement of South African students at Aims”, Mokoena said.

“A multipronged plan has been developed to increase the number of South Africans participating in Aims,” she said, including workshops, summer schools and international conferences, for which fees are “generally” waived for South Africans.