Mentoring of early career academics in South African higher education : a transformation strategy

Geber, Hilary Margaret
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Early career academics in South Africa enter a higher education system with a historical legacy of division along lines of past discrimination and apartheid. The higher education system has been undergoing profound transformation in the last decade through the promulgation of the SAQA Act (No 58 of 1995) and the Higher Education Act No 101 of 1997. Although numbers of black students at historically advantaged, predominantly white higher education institutions have increased dramatically in the past decade to over 50% in some cases, the change in the academic staff at these institutions has not been nearly as rapid. Less than 30% of the academic staff is black, even at institutions which consider themselves to be progressive. The argument in this research is that the professional socialisation and development of early career academics in all South Africa universities is generally neglected or receives scanty attention and that the professional development in teaching which they receive at entry-level, is minimal. Although mentoring as a professional development strategy has been shown in many studies to have a positive impact in careers at entrylevel, South African universities are not doing enough to support and develop early career academics and consequently the transformation of higher education is being retarded by institutional lack of support. The case of the University of the Witwatersrand illustrates the situation common in many higher education institutions. The purpose of the study is to investigate mentoring as a transformation strategy for the professional development and socialisation in the career development and management of the early careers of entry-level academics to higher education in South Africa where transformation of higher education is a critical issue on the national agenda. In this study there are 28 early career academics in formal mentoring relationships as a result of specially designed mentoring programmes or academic internships which have been established since 1999. They were interviewed in-depth for their interpretations of their experiences in formal mentoring programmes where almost all the mentors are white and the majority of mentees belong to different cultural groups. The findings in the study show how necessary it is for early career academics to be paired with mentors who are aware of the functions and roles of mentors in higher education and who are seriously committed to fulfilling those roles themselves or in conjunction with others in their networks. One new career development function and one new psychosocial function of mentors were added to a model of existing functions derived from the literature. Transformation is an important new function of mentors and their function as role models is emphasised by the context of this mentoring research. Mentoring may be lauded as the panacea for transformation in higher education but unless mentors are adequately trained, supported and monitored, and are committed to transformation, the strategy is not likely to meet with success. Mentoring in cross-cultural contexts in higher education in South Africa is also likely to be only partially successful because too little is being done to address the effects of institutional and covert racism which lingers on. A wide spectrum of recommendations is made for making mentoring work in higher education institutions. These range from broadly based macro interventions at national and institutional levels, to quite detailed micro interventions at the individual level. Without a systematic and committed thrust throughout the sector to accelerate transformation, the whole sector is likely to languish and busy itself with meeting legislative demands for equity compliance and quality assurance drives without addressing the fundamental issues of developing those young academics who are instrumental in transforming the system.
Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2004
Geber, Hilary Margaret (2004) Mentoring of early career academics in South African higher education : a transformation strategy, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg,<>