The South African Education Research Association (SAERA) held its 8th annual conference virtually organised by the University of Witwatersrand which focused on the theme of ‘Education for Inclusivity and Sustainability in Times of Increasing Inequalities’.
As a national academic organisation that started in 2013 SAERA has progressively sought to professionalise, cohere and improve educational research and academic work in South Africa. Over 2020-2021 the association has increasingly sought to focus on building the next generation of scholars and offering support for early career academics.
For many years SAERA has offered a sliding scale (R200) of reduced membership fees for retired academics and students. The association has also traditionally organised pre-conference workshops to support early career researchers and offers annual awards to recognise emerging scholarship. In recent years the association has also sought to increasingly support mentorship and learning by developing special interest groups (SIG’s) which convened thematic sessions at this year’s annual conference.
Given its role as the leading educational research association in the country SAERA holds a particular privilege and responsibility to engage with a wide range of stakeholders within the education system. It provides a critical space for early career scholars and professional researchers to support educational research and scholarship as it is conducted alongside government agencies, within schools, universities and communities.
In 2020 the association moved to amend the constitution to facilitate representation of early career scholars on the executive committee based on consultation and feedback from membership. An expansive definition of the Early Career Researcher (ECR) is a person who, within 5 years of completing a Ph.D., or during doctoral or master studies or a research career, is interested in working at a national, regional and international level to:
- broaden research training and professional development experiences;
- exchange experiences and ideas about research and research training;
- develop research projects in collaboration with researchers of different institutions and countries;
- actively participate in a research community for emerging academics
Throughout 2021 a range of initiatives were brought forward forming part of a broad strategy to enhance SAERA’s reach and support for the next generation of scholars, and to encourage academic networks to become affiliated and build the SAERA community.
A first step in this process involved enhancing he association’s ability to engage with the wider research community digitally with a series of online seminars led by SIG’s and leading academics via SAERA’s Youtube channel ‘SAERA News’.
A second step taken last year was to further expand SAERA’s digital footprint and support ECR’s by setting up an ECR Facebook group linked to the SAERA Facebook page which is open to members and non-members alike. In addition to this, early career researchers were also invited to signal their interest in becoming affiliated or becoming members of SAERA via an Emerging Academic Database online.
A third step was to put together a pre-conference workshop focusing on the challenges faced by ECRs. The workshop included a panel discussion with early career scholars and was titled ‘Writing for change – supporting early career researchers (ECR) as authors’. This was a joint initiative facilitated by the ECR representative and led by the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa (ANFASA), SAERA and the Journal Critical Arts.
A fourth and complementary step was to pull together several roundtables at the conference. One of these sought to share insights and approaches taken by other academic communities nationally and associations internationally to support ECR’s, and was titled ‘Building Early Career researcher networks through expansive learning and dialogue‘. The discussion engaged with the role of ECR’s within academic communities in transition, building sustainability and inclusion within academic communities and nurturing African-based knowledge and knowledge producers and produced a short guide for Emerging Researchers.
A fifth step taken was to establish a democratic process to elect the next ECR representative. An online Virtual Townhall meeting was held to inform prospective candidates to put themselves forward for election. Then SAERA members and ECR’s were invited to cast votes for candidate with an online ballot. This process then led to the appointment of Mphoentle Modise (email@example.com) as the next ECR representative at last year’s annual conference.
Finally, a statement on education under COVID-19 was developed in consultation with ECRs. This addresses ongoing issues of concern for university students and academics, with the challenges faced by teachers as frontline workers alongside learners in their communities. This statement on COVID 19 and education is way to recognise the many shared losses, lost opportunities and struggles faced by students, academics and school teachers during the pandemic.
The pandemic exposed deep inequalities within South African society and the education system. With the closure of schools on March 18th 2020 and the first national lockdown on the impact upon the most vulnerable families and learner was compounded. A campaign (#SchoolMealsNow) led by SECTION 27, Equal Education (EE) and the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC) together with other organisations was initiated on 10th of April.
Commitments made to resume the NSNP were later broken violating learners’ constitutional rights to basic nutrition, basic education and equality. This led to SECTION 27, EE and the EELC demanding reinstatement of nutrition for all learners and considering litigation. Two days after the release of the NIDS-CRAM survey data which provided shocking evidence of increased conditions of hunger (47% of respondents had run out of food in the month of April) on the 17th of July a court order was issued ruling that MECs and the DBE had neglected their Constitutional duties by failing to roll out the NSNP to all qualifying learners – whether those learners were back at school or at home.
It is not uncommon now to speak of losing a generation of gains in access to education with disruption experienced at all levels. Many university students were unable to go on campus, and were often left without easy access to the internet, laptops or quiet places to work. Teaching staff at universities were often unable to protect themselves from illness. Many early career scholars, academics and teachers came up against a landslide of obstacles without adequate face-to-face teaching, support networks, staff shortages, the closure of schools for teacher practicum placements and immense difficulties for postgraduates attempting to conduct thesis fieldwork.
Cooperation and solidarity based on mutuality of interests and shared benefits can support early career scholars and educators to better navigate this challenging situation. The initiatives brought forward by SAERA during 2021 were intended to draw upon resources within the wider academic community to provide spaces online for mentorship, solidarity and inspiration that could be progressively nurtured. Building equity in access and success in higher education and opening broader access to knowledge was the goal of these community-focused initiatives to promote knowledge sharing, intergenerational dialogue, sustainability and inclusion within our academic communities.
SAERA is keen to hear ideas about the kind of initiatives that we need for the future. If you’d like to become involved in supporting work with early career scholars in your institution or within the association then you can join the ECR Facebook group and become a member or get in touch by emailing the SAERA’s secretary directly at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Post written by Thomas Salmon – SAERA early career representative (2021) – contact: email@example.com