Rhodes University Quality Assurance
- Staff Support
- Student Support
- Quality Assessment of Research
- Postdoctoral Fellows and Research Associates
Research opportunities and Funding
The DVC: R&D and the Research Office identify sources and opportunities for research projects and funding through the use of national and international databases and frequent interaction with funding bodies such as national research councils, other government agencies, industries and commerce. Such information is specifically targeted for or directed to relevant departments, institutes or individuals. Opportunities for research projects and funding for black and female staff are also targeted for programmes such as the NRF Thuthuka programme on which 4 black and female staff are currently funded. Limited resources and competing needs does, however, restrict these initiatives to a certain extent since many of these programmes require matching contributions from the institution.
The university provides research funding through grants administered through a Research Committee (RC). The priority for the allocation of these funds is new and young staff with the remaining funds allocated to established staff on a need basis but more importantly based on their record of research outputs. While there is an emphasis on research productivity such as subsidized journals articles, books and postgraduate student supervision, all forms of research outputs including performances, exhibitions, reports, etc are taken into account in this evaluation. Established staff with a poor record of research outputs are not supported. Progress reports on university funded research are also used to evaluate subsequent applications.
The RC has adopted a policy of funding all appropriate research and not just that which falls within identified niche areas. This has been a major factor in stimulating research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in particular and is partly the reason for the high standing of research in these disciplines at Rhodes. Traditional areas of research strength are also supported from time to time internally through other more ad hoc mechanisms. These areas include amongst others biotechnology, communication technology, astronomy and medicinal chemistry in the Sciences and sociology, politics, philosophy and anthropology in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Interdisciplinary strengths lie in the fields of water and environmental research.
Subsequent to sourcing research opportunities and funding, the Research Office interacts extensively with staff to assist with the preparation of grant, contract and project applications. The development of a thorough knowledge and understanding of the funder’s needs, preferences and different processes for submitting applications is essential in providing this service. Before submission applications are rigorously checked for style, format, content and budget by the Director of Research, his assistant and Assistant Accountant for Research. A similar process is followed for NRF rating applications and for the preparation of reports. All applications for projects involving animal or human subjects are referred to the University’s ethics committee for advice and approval.
Grants and contracts awarded to staff are very strictly managed in terms of finances and deliverables. The research section of the Finance Division together with the Research Office ensures that expenditure and deliverables are adhered to in terms of the proposals and/or formal contracts and agreements. Financial and other reporting is done in accordance with the funder’s requirements. Financial control of grants is one of the most respected aspects of Rhodes University’s administration of research projects with many funders specifically requesting Rhodes management of consortium projects.
In order to maintain the effective financial and general administration of research grants the University last year introduced an administrative fee of 10% on all research funding. This is utilized partly to employ staff to administer the grants and a proportion is allocated to the RC to support research activities still to be determined.
The involvement of staff in innovative and entrepreneurial research activities is actively encouraged by an Intellectual Property (IP) policy in which IP and copyright resides with the academic staff member and not the University. Support is also provided in exploiting entrepreneurial ideas through a Centre for Entrepreneurship and Business Unit which have been recently have established partly to address a need to assist researchers with the exploitation of their novel ideas and findings. In selected cases the University has provided seed funding and/or partnerships to exploit commercialization of these ideas. To date 3 spin-out companies, 6 entrepreneurial research units and 7 individual closed corporations have been established from this activity and a number of individual closed corporations established. This and generous conditions allowing for individual consultancy and contract work has also enabled the university to retain many key staff, particularly in market related discipline.
The University recognizes the need to attend and present papers at conferences and for travel related to academic leave and other research activities and is proactive in supporting this travel. In the case of conference travel, all academic and research staff can apply to the RC for funding to present papers at one local and one international conference a year. Young and new staff receive the maximum grant available at the time and for established researchers funding, particularly for international conferences and academic leave, is awarded on the basis of their record of research productivity. The University’s commitment to supporting this aspect of research activity is demonstrated by a more than 3 fold increase in the RC travel budget in the past 5 years.
Rhodes University has a good infrastructure to support research. The library has very extensive electronic resources although, like many libraries worldwide, its holdings of hard copy journals and books are more limited. IT support in terms of provision of computers and access to the internet and email is as good as any institution in the country. Building infrastructure, laboratories and specialized facilities are mostly modern and extensive. However, in certain departments and fields of research the infrastructure to support research activities is limited and does restrict the size of the postgraduate intake.
Equipment for research is provided through individual research grants and contracts in addition to an annual University equipment grant which is competitive on a departmental basis. In 1999 a system was introduced to allow certain departments on request to receive a significant equipment grant to acquire major items of equipment on the understanding that those departments do not receive further equipment grants over the following 4 year period. Ad hoc infrastructural support is provided in cases of need to develop new research areas and to assist new as well as productive groups.
During a staff orientation programme the Director of Research informs mainly new staff about research issues and functions of the Research Office which is followed up with more detailed sessions with individuals on request. Workshops in conjunction with other departments or outside facilitators are conducted on supervision, funding, entrepreneurship, intellectual property and other related topics. Funding organizations are also regularly invited to make presentations to staff. Such workshops and presentations are often targeted at younger, inexperienced staff. The DVC: R&D is regularly invited to make presentations or be involved in discussion sessions in academic departments and specific research groups on subjects of their choice. Two years ago a process of regular departmental visits was initiated to make staff aware of developments in research and to provide an opportunity for informal discussions. The Higher Degrees Guide provides staff with an extensive guide on aspects of postgraduate supervision and other research student matters. This guide is revised on an annual basis by the DVC: R&D in consultation with Faculty Deans.
Senior staff are encouraged to mentor more junior staff mainly within their own disciplines, an informal mentorship which is very successful. A number of retired senior professors also fulfil this role very successfully. The Mellon staff programme for accelerated development has a formal mentorship requirement and when necessary the DVC: R&D meets with the staff member and their mentor to assess their research development. All staff who do not have higher degrees are encouraged to further their studies and are provided with support to do so in the form of bursaries to pay fees, academic leave, an award and promotion opportunities on completion of the qualification and through other forms of ad hoc assistance. Visits by senior researchers from other institutions are encouraged and financially supported where possible. Important awards that encourage staff development are the prestigious Vice-Chancellors Distinguished Research (under 40) and Senior Research Awards. International standing and peer evaluation are the criteria used in making these awards and the prominence they receive at graduation ceremonies gives them a very high profile. A Vice-Chancellors book award was initiated in 2002 to recognize research outputs in book form. This is again a highly valued award particularly since book outputs are poorly rewarded in terms of subsidy earned for this form of research output.
The Research Office and DVC: R&D operate an open door policy in terms of assistance, guidance or advice on all research matters as well as other more general academic and personal issues such as career options, supervision, etc. In this regard the Research Office is one of the most utilized administrative offices by academic staff.
Attracting quality postgraduates
Over the past 8 years the University and the Vice-Chancellor in particular has embarked on an active strategy of increasing internal funding and raising donor support for postgraduate scholarships and bursaries. This has been focused primarily on black and female students with preference given to South African nationals and permanent residence holders. This has been a highly successful strategy with annual funding for Honours, Master’s and PhD student prestigious scholarships increasing from R635 000 (35 awards) in 1999 to R2 210 000 (62 awards) in 2005. Continued funding is ensured by regular contact with donors, detailed reporting in line with donor needs and a strict policy of funding based on student quality which is not compromised even if it results in the funding available in a particular year not all being utilized. In addition to these competitive scholarships the University awards automatic scholarships to third year and Honours students who obtain first class passes and Master’s students obtaining distinctions. In addition, students are supported by awards from the NRF, MRC and other funding organizations. The total scholarship and additional financial aid awarded for postgraduate study has increased from approximately R3.5 million (350 awards) in 1999 to R9.9 million (750 awards) in 2004. Scholarship and other postgraduate financial aid schemes are extensively advertised and communicated internally, in the regional and national press and through the HEI network. All applicants are screened by the Research Office and a short list of applicants compiled in consultation with the Faculty Deans. After approval of acceptance by the relevant departments the final awards are made by a committee of Deans, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor.
The administration of all postgraduate funding programmes is the responsibility of the Postgraduate Financial Aid Administrator assisted by the other staff in the Research Office. This is a very time consuming task requiring interaction with funders, advertising of funding opportunities, initial screening and broad ranking of applications, extensive reporting to funders and constant daily interaction with students to deal with queries, process funding allocations and providing a contact point for general postgraduate advice. This service and other more general support is a highly valued and essential part of postgraduate studies at Rhodes.
Postgraduates particularly of good quality are also attracted to Rhodes because of factors such as the national and international significance and relevance of most of its research programmes, its areas of research strength, the quality of the Rhodes degree and the high rate of employment of its successful postgraduates. A further factor which attracts postgraduate students, as with undergraduates, is the safe, residence based environment (the recently established Gavin Relly Postgraduate Village being a major attraction) and the infrastructure provided for research.
Admission into Honours programmes requires a minimum of 60% (and usually higher) in the major to be studied. Unfortunately, based on past experience, graduates from some other institutions are often not sufficiently prepared for the academic rigour of many of the Rhodes University Honours programmes and a grade higher than 60% is required before these graduates can be admitted. Acceptance is departmentally determined but authorized by the Dean and is also dependant on the supervisory and resource capacity in the department. The effectiveness of this admissions process and subsequent support mechanisms for Honours students can be measured by the 96-100% pass rate by these students.
A much more rigorous process of acceptance into Master’s and PhD study has been introduced across all Faculties which requires both the applicant and potential supervisor to complete forms for approval by the Head of Department and Dean. Issues relating to the field and topic of research, supervisory capacity and expertise, funding and infrastructure amongst others are addressed in the applications.
Recognition of prior learning is taken into account in the ad eundem gradum admission into Honours and Master’s study. Such admissions require Faculty recommendation and Senate approval.
Student Support and Development
New postgraduate students are introduced to Rhodes through a process of departmental orientation, peer orientation, a University based orientation day and special information sessions by the Library and IT Division. Postgraduate students in residence are also included in residence orientation programmes. The orientation of new students particularly foreign postgraduates has not always been as effective as it could be with some students expressing concerns about the time taken to integrate into the campus and the community. Interaction with the new International Office and Dean as well as the Postgraduate Liaison Committee (PGLC) will hopefully alleviate this and will provide ideas to improve the orientation process. The PGLC was formed in 2003 and is composed of representatives from all departments and organizes regular meetings and functions for postgraduates. It is also a sub-committee of the JRC, has representation on the JRC and interacts closely and reports though the Dean of Research.
All postgraduate students on registration are provided with a copy of the Higher Degrees Guide, a comprehensive guide to most aspects of postgraduate study at Rhodes including responsibilities of supervisors and students. The guide also contains copies of all relevant forms, contacts, etc and is regularly updated and edited. Specific workshops on aspects of the Guide are arranged either within departments or by the Dean of Research and Postgraduate Liaison Committee. These include supervision, thesis and report writing and research methodology workshops. This is an aspect of research student support which could be strengthened with additional resources to conduct more workshops and other support services. An area of increasing need for support is with writing skills particularly for second language English speakers. With increasing numbers of such students studying at Rhodes workshops on writing skills are conducted by the Academic Development Centre and there are plans to expand this service. In certain disciplines and some scholarship programmes formal mentorship schemes are in place to assist new postgraduates both academically and in a more general sense.
Additional, more project based support and development, is provided by peers, supervisors and departmental seminars and journal clubs in which opportunities are also provided for improving written and verbal presentation skills. In this regard conference presentation of research data is also encouraged and financial support for conference attendance, mainly local, can be applied for from the JRC. Almost all applications by Master’s and PhD students to make presentations at local conferences are supported but there is very little opportunity for international conference presentation due to limited funding. Funding is also needed to enable new research students to attend conferences without necessarily making presentations.
Services supporting postgraduate such as the Library, IT and other infrastructure are essentially the same as those outlined under the staff section. In addition, postgraduate students have access to a dedicated computer laboratory and thesis preparation computer facility (both being interventions in the past few years arising from feedback from the Postgraduate Liaison Committee) in addition to internet connections in all residences including the Postgraduate Village. Funding is provided for Master’s and Doctoral students to attend and present research papers at local conference with very limited support being available for International conference attendance other than that which may be available through their supervisors individual research grants.
Proposal preparation and approval
Master’s and PhD project proposals are initially prepared by the student in consultation with the supervisor. The proposals then go through a process of departmental approval which varies between departments and may include input from several members of the department in addition to the supervisor as well as a presentation of the proposal at a departmental seminar. This allows the student to strengthen their proposals through a thorough process before the proposals are submitted to the Faculty Higher Degrees Committees for approval. The Higher Degrees Committees have as broad a representation as possible and members are selected by the faculty for their known ability to uphold academic standards and in many cases for their research and supervisory experience. Supervisors and/or Heads of Departments are invited to attend those parts of the meeting when their student/s proposal is considered and if required the committee provides feedback for the student to further strengthen the proposal. This process works extremely well and efficiently even if some students find it a difficult hurdle to overcome. As a result of this thorough process almost all proposals submitted to higher degrees committees are accepted on the first submission with minor alterations in many cases. Those that are referred back are generally all accepted after revision.
The Science and Pharmacy Faculties currently do not have Higher Degrees Committees but consideration is being given to the introduction of a similar process in these faculties.
Besides the normal monitoring of progress on research projects by supervisors and Heads of Department, the university has a formal Policy on Supervision of Master’s and PhD theses which requires both students and supervisors to complete an annual progress report as outlined in the staff section. These reports are collated by the Deans and a summary presented to the Vice-Chancellor.
Students wishing to upgrade from a Master’s to PhD are required to present a comprehensive report on progress including evidence of research outputs together with a full motivation for consideration by the Faculty Higher Degrees or Upgrade Committee which makes a recommendation to Senate.
Quality Assessment of Research
Grant Proposals and Reports
In terms of research grant proposals, reports, etc a thorough knowledge and understanding of the funder’s requirements and objectives gained through networking with them is essential for the preparation of high quality proposals and reports. Acquiring this knowledge is one of the primary functions of the Director of Research and his assistant, as is the rigorous checking of such submissions in terms of general presentation and for scientific and other content. Input from peers within the university or in the case of rating applications from outside is sometimes sought to assist with this process.
Assessing Research Outputs
Research outputs in the form of journal articles, books, artifacts, etc are assessed in terms of their appropriateness and impact while conference presentations are assessed in relation to significance of the conference, the nature of the presentation and its outcomes. The quality of research carried out by an individual or group is in turn viewed in the context of the above factors in addition to their peer standing (eg NRF rating, National and International standing and external assessments and recommendations) and the number, graduation rates and quality and employment profile of their postgraduates. These outputs also are assessed in the relation to the expected norms in a particular discipline. While this has proved to be a very successful means of quality assessment for most disciplines it is not necessarily so for others such as the performing and visual arts. Based on the above criteria, which are similar to internationally accepted criteria of assessing research quality, the majority of Rhodes academic departments and research institutes are highly regarded for the quality and profile of their research.
The collection, collation and checking of subsidy earning research outputs is one of the most important tasks performed by the Research Office (particularly the Deans assistant) since this is now the basis for much of the subsidy earned for research. It is an extremely time-consuming task because of the need for close collaboration with departments to ensure full and accurate publication returns and the conditions imposed by the Department of Education in terms of the acceptability of returns, particularly of books and monographs, for consideration for subsidy purposes.
One of the problems which has recently arisen in assessing the impact of research particularly in the sciences has been a shift towards more contract rather than grant driven research with the outputs frequently being in the form of reports sometimes of a confidential nature. One means that is used to assess the quality of this research is a direct interaction between the Director of Research and the funder to ascertain their satisfaction with the research carried out and its impact. In cases where significant amounts of contract research is carried out, a regular assessment is made on the impact of this on the more traditional forms of research publication and on the quality and progress of postgraduate students working on these contracts.
Role of the Joint Research Committee
The JRC is a joint committee of Senate and Council, chaired by the DVC: R&D, on which both bodies are represented as are all Faculties, the Finance Division and postgraduate students. Its function is to advise and assist the DVC: R&D in evaluating applications and budgets for University research grants, in assessing quality of research and in developing research strategies.
Assessing Postgraduate Supervision
The quality of postgraduate supervision is partly informed by the University Supervision Policy which requires the supervisor and student to complete an annual assessment form detailing the supervisory process, student progress and areas of concern and/or satisfaction from both perspectives. This policy was introduced in 2001 to address problems of supervision which arose from time to time. The number of research students supervised by any individual is also monitored and external examiners reports on theses are carefully read by both the Faculty Dean and DVC: R&D (and Vice-Chancellor in the case of PhDs) and any problems relating to quality are noted and discussed with the supervisor if necessary. In addition, the Faculty Deans and DVC: R&D are available to provide guidance to staff and students on any issue relating to supervision. Supervisor and student responsibilities relating to supervision are detailed in the Higher Degrees Guide and are regularly updated based on feedback received from staff and research students. While these systems of quality assurance of supervision are undoubtedly effective, postgraduate supervision often involves a very personal relationship between supervisor and student which should not be too rigorously interfered with but which can go wrong. When this does happen the above systems are proving to be effective at early identification of the problem and rectifying it. The policy of annual reporting has also allowed the Deans to more effectively assess throughput rates of postgraduate students, an issue which will be discussed in the Research Degree section.
Thesis Examination and Publication
A comprehensive guideline on the style, format and length of theses is provided in the Higher Degree Guide in addition to that available from supervisors and departments. For full Master’s theses 2 external examiners are appointed neither of whom may be the supervisor and both of whom should be external. Three examiners with the same provisos are appointed for PhD theses. Nomination of examiners is made by the supervisor and is approved by Faculty in the case of Master’s theses and by Faculty and Senate for PhDs. An additional condition is that at least one examiner in the case of a Master’s and 2 in the case of a PhD must be an academic or be in an academic research institute with a track record of supervision. Clear procedures for collating and dealing with examiners reports are contained in the Higher Degrees Guide. The award of Master’s degrees are made by the Dean and Faculty and PhD degrees by the Vice-Chancellor and Senate on a recommendation by the Dean and Committee of Assessors.
Candidates are encouraged to submit electronic versions of their corrected theses in PDF format for deposit in the open access Rhodes eResearch Repository (ReRR). An embargo period of between 1 and 5 years before deposit in the ReRR for confidentiality purposes may be stipulated. The university encourages the publication of thesis data in referred journal or book form and through the Director of Research provides support including limited financial support for such publication if required.
Database of Graduates
The university regards the tracking of careers of all its students but particularly those with higher degrees as very important both from a contact perspective but also the career path of these graduates is a very good indicator of the success of postgraduate programmes and their quality. This is done at present through an Alumni database maintained by the Marketing and Development Division, through ad hoc Counselling and Career Centre surveys, by the Research Office as a requirement of certain scholarship schemes but mainly by personal and departmental correspondence and contact.
Post-doctoral Fellows and Research Associates
Local, Regional and National Collaboration
Collaboration within the university is encouraged and the “Rhodes Environment” is conducive to this. The number of multidisciplinary research and interest groups including cross faculty groups are growing partly as a result of national funding pressure to increase collaborative multidisciplinary research. Regional collaborative research, particularly between HEIs has not been a strong feature of research at Rhodes primarily due to a lack of experience at other institutions in the fields in which Rhodes has expertise. However, one initiative which arose out of a recent review of associated Research Institutes will be the appointment of a Research Professor to initiate research programmes in the social sciences in the Eastern Cape in collaboration with the Eastern Cape Government and other bodies in the region. The University has also provided support for other regional research initiatives by research units such as the ISER, ISEA, PSAM and CADRE as well as academic departments, the benefits of which are the dissemination of the resulting research findings to the relevant communities in terms of, for example, a better understanding and counselling on issues of poverty and HIV-AIDS, a greater awareness of accountability amongst public officials and an improvement in written, verbal and practical mathematical and laboratory skills amongst secondary school teachers.
An international quality review of the university in 2001 highlighted the need for an International Office to foster international collaboration amongst other initiatives. This resulted in expansion of the International Offices activities and the appointment of a Dean: International Office. The Research Office works closely with the International Office in fostering these international links and a number of “genuine” exchange and co-operative projects with institutions in the USA, UK, Europe and Australia have been established. However, it is recognized the international research collaboration is often driven by individuals. As indicated in previous sections, the University provides funding for international conference and study leave travel for its staff in addition to limited support to bring international scholars to Rhodes through a number of fellowship schemes.
Affiliates, Institutes and Units
Rhodes University has 20 affiliated research institutes and units and 3 associated but independent research institutes (SAIAB, NELM, Albany Museum). Most of these research units have arisen out of specialized research activities in academic departments which grew to a point where a separate institute or unit was warranted. Approval for the establishment of an institute or unit requires Senate and Council approval and is dependant on resource implications and the need for a unit to focus on areas of research strength which align with the University’s research focus. The DVC: R&D and senior university staff serve on the Boards of the institutes and in many cases the DVC: R&D is the Chairman of the Board. Formal agreements (eg MOU’s) between the institutes and the University exist in a number of cases.
As with academic departments internal institutes are regularly reviewed simply to ensure that their research and vision continues to be aligned with that of the University and to review the University’s continued support particularly in terms of staffing and other resources.
The role of the research institutes has proved to be a very important one at Rhodes. They compliment and add significant value to the University’s research activities and profile. Many of them in their own right have a very high national and international standing. They also make important contributions to many community projects and University committees.