Perverse incentives for universities are wasting the skills and work of postdoctoral fellows


South African universities are faced with a strange pair of problems. On one hand, universities and the department of higher education and training (DHET) claim that the higher education system is seriously short of PhD-qualified academic staff.  Only about 35% of permanent academics have PhDs, though these are unevenly distributed among universities (Mouton et al, 2018) . Since only academics with PhDs can supervise new PhDs, there are also worries about how the academic profession is going to sustain itself in the long term.  Universities are being encouraged to think of “innovative strategies” to recruit PhD-qualified academics to fill this gap. 

But on the other hand, the universities already collectively host a few thousand postdoctoral fellows. These academics all have PhDs, and are required to conduct and publish academic research, but they are not university employees.  They receive relatively low, stagnant, “scholarships” instead of salaries, pay no tax, receive no benefits, have no job security, are not counted as staff for employment equity purposes, and are not guaranteed a permanent job once their fellowship is finished. They are often paid through postgraduate funding offices, and in some universities are referred to as postdoctoral “students” even though they are not registered for any degree. 

What are postdoctoral fellowships?  Ideally, they are temporary appointments that allow an academic who recently graduated with a PhD to spend time (two to three years) publishing their research with few or no teaching and administration responsibilities, before moving on to a permanent academic post. Universities typically claim that this arrangement benefits both the university and the fellow: the university benefits by having its research productivity bolstered by the fellow’s publications; and the newly-qualified PhD-holder benefits from a period of “mentored training” in which to develop their research skills, under the supervision of a senior academic host, in preparation for an academic career and a permanent university job. 

This ideal sounds great, but for a number of reasons the reality is often not so rosy.  First, there is no guarantee that academics in postdoctoral positions will find a permanent job after a convenient two to three years. Although some postdocs do find permanent work reasonably quickly, others have been in postdoctoral positions for six or seven years at one or more universities. And there does not appear to be any structured career progression plan by which postdocs are absorbed into the permanent academic staff in any university.  

In some ways, this mirrors patterns of academic casualisation in much of the Global North, where, in a collapsing permanent academic job market, postdoctoral fellowships and other kinds of insecure posts are absorbing the oversupply of PhD graduates who have no realistic chance of finding permanent academic work.  In South Africa, however, the reasons for offering postdoctoral fellowships are less clear, as most academics already in permanent posts don’t have PhDs. 

A second and related problem with the postdoctoral system in South Africa is that universities describe these fellowships as periods of “mentored training”, “apprenticeships”, “internships”, opportunities for “experiential learning”, and other similar language which presents fellows as perpetual learners. Whereas this superficially presents the universities as “helping to develop the academic pipeline”, in fact it undermines the professionalism of the work academics in postdoctoral positions do, as well as a sense of entitlement to appropriate remuneration for that work.  

When universities say they are doing academics a favour by giving them experience — which will supposedly pay off sometime later in making them competitive for a permanent job — this justifies cheap scholarships instead of salaries with benefits. It also obscures the way that postdoctoral fellowships and other forms of temporary work are helping to create the gap between finishing a PhD and getting a secure job, as much as they are now also claiming to fill that gap.  Presenting postdoctoral fellows as learners who need more preparation for a future academic career also overlooks how many postdocs have already established themselves as accomplished academics in the absence of secure university employment.  

If they are so short of PhD-qualified academics, why don’t universities then just hire all these postdoctoral fellows straight into permanent academic posts? Surely this is an obvious solution to all parties’ needs?  Or is it? Are university managers just being un-proactive about staffing plans, or are there really two different logics at work here, such that complaints about the shortage of PhD-qualified permanent staff do not acknowledge the ways that recruiting academics into non-permanent positions is actually being incentivised by other aspects of the higher education system?  

I have been in postdoctoral positions for three years now, and these questions have perplexed me for a long time.  Because I have never had a permanent university job, and so have never participated in any university decision-making forums where postdoctoral policies are made, the reasons suggested below are my best guesses, informed by much reading and discussion with colleagues. 

Part of the answer, surely, is that postdoctoral fellows are cheap for universities.  Postdocs stipends — on average about R200 000 a year — are significantly lower than an average entry-level lecturer salary, come with no benefits, and increase only once every several years.  If postdocs produce two journal articles a year, they will have more or less earned back their stipend in government subsidy.  

 The DHET runs a cash-for-papers system: the higher education budget is distributed among universities in return for how many academic publications each one produces in DHET-approved journals and presses.  In this way, academic publications have been turned into a form of currency which can be exchanged for real money. The value of an academic article varies from year to year according to the higher education budget, but is about R100 000. 

Beyond cost, however, there are other benefits to universities in having a significant fraction of their academic workforce outside of permanent employment.  It has been suggested that postdocs are being recruited to do research because permanent academics are too overworked with teaching and administration to do it themselves (Holley et al, 2018). Universities can plug this hole with postdoctoral fellows and other temporary academics who do the work not only for much cheaper, but in ways that make the university look better in formal measures of research output and employment equity.  DHET ranks South African universities by giving each one a “per capita” output score that is calculated by dividing its postgraduate graduations and total research publications by its number of permanent staff only.  

This is an incorrect understanding of “per capita”, which effectively erases the contribution of non-permanent academics.  The smaller the university’s permanent workforce, relative to its total research-producing population, the better its final score.  So when postdoctoral fellows  —  who are not university employees  —  publish journal articles in the name of the university they are affiliated with, the university benefits by increasing its research output (and possibly its income) while not increasing the numbers of permanent academics it employs.  The same applies to research published by students, temporary employees, and academics affiliated with departments but not employed by them: for ranking purposes, these authors are not counted. 

Universities are also under pressure to increase the number of black South African permanent academics they employ, because white South Africans are still highly overrepresented in the academic ranks. Again, postdocs explicitly do not count for employment equity purposes, which means that academics who are not members of designated groups are eligible for postdoctoral positions even when they would not be the preferred candidates for permanent academic posts.  

So postdoctoral fellowships enable universities to reap these academics’ publications, in exchange for government subsidy and/or a position in the rankings, while not needing to include them in the demographics of the permanent academic staff. Although universities often present postdoctoral fellowships as part of the “academic pipeline” by which the “next generation” of academics is being trained, this raises the major question of where universities expect these postdocs, who were not recruited with employment equity concerns in mind, to find employment after their fellowship is finished. 

Though it is not possible to say so definitively without accurate figures, it appears that the majority of postdoctoral fellows are not black South Africans. This raises the question of whether similar patterns of black under-representation are present among postdocs as among the permanent  academic staff.

All of this raises the question of how and why university priorities and mandates are being set in such a way that they are basically unachievable by the ordinary complement of academic staff members on standard conditions of employment.  Permanent academics have ballooning teaching, supervision and administration loads, partly as a consequence of dramatically increased class sizes over the past 10-15 years.  

Instead of addressing this by employing more permanent staff to improve the staff:student ratio, or changing research output targets to be more realistic, university decision-makers appear to be outsourcing part of the universities’ core work to a low-paid and insecure peripheral academic workforce, and engaging in competition for competition’s sake.  Again, postdoctoral fellows are not the only ones in this category; many others are doing lecturing and research work on various low-paid, fixed-term contracts. 

In this way, South African universities have become like a face with two mouths.  One mouth is worried about the shortage of PhD-qualified permanent academics, and wonders how this gap is going to be filled in the long term. The other mouth describes postdoctoral fellows as learners, trainees, interns and apprentices, and seems to have little intention of employing them, while reaping the benefits of their highly skilled work.  This bifurcated system, where everyone works but only some are visible or counted in official measures, is creating a politics of appearances, where surface measures of success (e.g. a higher position in the rankings) have become more important than the conditions of the people actually doing the work. This is the upshot of instrumentalising academic work (Harley, 2017) — that is, giving it an exchange value which has nothing to do with the value that it had for the person who originally produced it. 

Postdoctoral fellows are highly skilled academics, yet many have lost hope of ever finding secure work in South African universities.  In a system which claims to need more PhDs, this seems a bizarre waste of the years of university education that have already been invested in them.  Universities and DHET should think carefully about the perverse incentives that are encouraging the proliferation of insecure fellowships and short contracts, which are undermining the attractiveness of the academic profession and turning universities into exploitative organisations. 

Philippa Kerr is an associate professor of psychology working on a six-month contract at the University of Oslo in Norway. Before that, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State. She plans to return to South Africa to begin a new postdoctoral fellowship later in 2020 and writes in her personal capacity

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Philippa Kerr
Philippa Kerr is a postdoctoral research fellow affiliated with the psychology department at Stellenbosch University.

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