/ 4 October 2013

No replacement for ageing brains

Left out: Many bright South Africans are graduating
Left out: Many bright South Africans are graduating, but there is no real interest in integrating them into academic institutions. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Many analyses of the state of higher education in South Africa have noted with some alarm that the profile of academics is ageing rapidly in the sense that many senior academics are nearing retirement and new, younger academics are not entering the system to take their place. 

It is not immediately obvious what conclusions should be drawn from this observation and yet there seems to exist — in the academic literature and policy circles — one dominant narrative interpretation. The first common assumption is that this is happening because of an absence of deliberate action. 

Second, it is assumed that the impending departure of many older academics will be a major blow to the higher education system. 

Finally, the message of impending doom is supplemented with a note that older academics produce (on average) more research than younger ones, so that by implication their departure will have a negative effect on research output. 

On closer inspection, these three interpretations can be shown to be contestable. The dominance of the overarching narrative can perhaps be explained by the fact that it buttresses the interests of the professoriate — established senior academics with significant institutional power — against those of the academic "precariat". 

This term, recently popularised by economist Guy Standing, is an amalgam of "proletariat" and "precariousness": it refers to a social class characterised by precarious existence, particularly in relation to job security. While concerned with a broader trend in modern economies, the concept usefully describes the phenomenon in higher education of an increasing reliance on individuals in precarious positions within the academy, such as short-term contract teaching staff ("adjuncts" in the United States) and postdoctoral scholars.

The first of these assumptions — that the ageing South African academy is a consequence of inaction — cannot be substantiated because, as I recently discovered, there exist no national data that allow us to track individual academics' career paths. Instead, analyses are forced to work with national and regional aggregates. What this means is that universities could be replacing retired academics with almost-retired academics, so that ageing is not a function of insufficient young candidates but institutional favouring of older ones. 

Indeed, there is evidence of this happening at a number of institutions, where it is becoming increasingly popular to parachute in senior academics — from local or foreign institutions — rather than give younger ones the opportunity to develop careers. 

In a previous Mail & Guardian piece, I noted that this in turn is partly tied to unhealthy and deeply destructive attempts to climb the greasy pole of international university rankings ("University rankings a flawed tool", January 4). 

As a recent example, the new Wits vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, in no doubt a well-meaning statement, said one of his priorities was to employ 30 "A-rated" researchers. To do so, he will obviously have to poach these from other local institutions, or do what others have done and simply import them from overseas and "convert" them into local A-rated researchers. 

The relevance here is that individuals so employed are unlikely to be young if A-ratings are the target and the benefits from bidding wars will accrue to senior academics.

Is the imminent departure of older academics a bad thing? It certainly implies some rapid changes within existing institutions, but given that institutional reform is notoriously hard within academia, this could present an opportunity as much as it presents a threat through instability or short-term lack of capacity. 

Implicit in much of the discourse around this issue is the presumption that older academics are inherently better than younger ones. Given the opportunity to accumulate more experience in teaching, research and intra- and inter-institution collaboration, there is surely something to be said for this view. 

At the same time, we would do well to reflect on how distorted and insulated a university system South Africa emerged with after apartheid. Much current discussion of low educational quality focuses on the basic education sector, but there is good reason to believe that higher education was affected by similar problems, with resultant institutional weakness, including insufficiently competent incumbents in even the best tertiary institutions. An anecdotal impression is that though we have many highly competent young South Africans graduating, from both local and international departments, there is no real interest in developing strategies to integrate them into local institutions or engage in structured succession planning.

A further assumption — that the departure of older academics will lead to a decline in research output — also fails to interrogate adequately the reasons for observed differences in crude aggregates. Publication is often enabled by social networks, through book chapters, journal special issues and favourable treatment by editors, none of which necessarily reflect the merits of research. 

Furthermore, to the extent that senior academics are more able to co-author with their graduate students and shift teaching and administrative burdens to junior staff, it is not at all clear that their retirement would not assist junior staff in publishing more. 

Much of the analysis of higher education in South Africa completely ignores subtle dynamics of this kind. A similar, but hardly subtle, point is that the resources released by the retirement of a senior professor may be sufficient to create two new entry-level positions, so even if junior staff have an average publication rate half of that of senior staff, research output will not decrease. Staff-student ratios, on the other hand, obviously will.

In light of the above, I was keenly interested in attending a debate that took place a few months ago on the merits of extending the academic retirement age in South Africa. This debate is not one unique to academia, with the notion of a fixed age seemingly outdated in an era of longer life expectancies and careers increasingly based on "the know-ledge economy" rather than more manual forms of labour. 

There is no doubt that some academics still have a great deal to contribute beyond the age of 65, and there should be some room to manoeuvre for exceptional individuals. By "exceptional" I mean individuals who are very talented, or who have had such valuable experiences that there is not plausibly anyone of similar calibre in subsequent generations available. There are few such academics internationally and even fewer locally. 

However, it became abundantly clear at this "debate" that the opposing sides were only notionally opposed: senior academics were essentially quibbling among themselves about what resources they should allow to be freed up once they, or those they know, reach retirement and how best to phrase and structure this. Many intend — as appears to be the custom — to use their institutional capital to stay on in contract and other positions, despite no serious attempt to ascertain whether there exist competent young replacements.

Naturally, a good deal of this is couched in terms of benefits to the academic "precariat"; most notably, the claim is that post-retirement individuals will be able to mentor successors and assist in institutional "transformation". One would think, however, that if such things have not happened after decades, then the evidence surely does not favour such claims. And savvy readers might point out that continuing to employ people based on this kind of rationale creates a distorted incentive not to mentor successors.

In the midst of much talk about excessive labour protection, insider-outsider bias and youth unemployment, it seems no one has noticed that some among the professoriate intend to cling to their privileges long past what is socially desirable. Mandatory retirement, although a very crude tool and hardly sufficient on its own, is currently one of the few quality-control measures at our disposal in the absence of academics being replaced for non-performance, which is essentially unheard of. Achieving a transformed meritocracy, opposed to an untransformed gerontocracy, demands that the retirement age be more substantively enforced, but who is going to do that?

Seán Muller is a lecturer in economics and a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town