A South African perspective on the preparation of globally competent researchers

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Abstract

In the past two decades, building and strengthening research capacity have intensified in South Africa and internationally, with a particular focus on the development of skilled researchers. Higher education institutions play a vital role in preparing future researchers able to meet globalised expectations for their future careers within and outside academia. It is important to realise, however, that the way research is being done and shared is continuously being transformed. Research practices within a changing research environment encourage new ways of data collection, analysis and dissemination; communication within and between research communities; multidisciplinary and multicultural collaborations; and dissemination of research findings to non-research communities. These ongoing advances result in a demand for new knowledge, new skills as well as new approaches to research education of future researchers. A rapidly changing research environment driven by globalisation, internationalisation, technological advances and the use of innovative methodologies calls for not only competent but globally competent researchers. Yet little is known about research knowledge and competencies that globally competent researchers need in order to engage in research projects across disciplines, across geographic borders and diverse cultural groups, even within a single nation. In addition, the existing literature on the development of researchers comes mainly from developed countries and is rarely inclusive of perspectives from the developing world.

To address the scarcity of literature on this topic, this article brings perspectives of nine South African novice and experienced scholars to (a) showcase knowledge and competencies that globally competent researchers require to conduct quality research and (b) explore opportunities and challenges associated with the acquisition of these competencies in the South African higher education context.

Carving part of a larger qualitative study grounded in the interpretive approach, this article relies on the responses from an e-questionnaire completed by nine South African researchers from different higher education institutions. The participants included six professors, one postdoctoral fellow and two doctoral students, representing both genders, although not equally (three women and six men). The participants were from a broad range of educational disciplines and were all members of a Comparative Education Society in Europe. This research was narrowed to one specific discipline, that of education, with the intention of acquiring a thorough understanding of the topic under investigation. The actual preparation of researchers may vary across disciplines. Therefore, collecting data from multiple disciplines at this stage could potentially add a level of complexity that would detract from the objectives of this article. The attention to the development of doctoral students as globally competent researchers was driven by the fact that they are recognised in scholarly literature as vital to the 21st-century global knowledge economy.

The data gathered from the nine South African respondents was purposefully extracted from a larger pool of 47 international participants to inform this article. Data analysis involved reading across the nine e-questionnaires and coding text. The coding process involved generating initial codes, grouping similar codes that represented patterned responses and arriving at a more manageable number of themes. The collective perceptions of the participants are reported in three themes complemented by excerpts of participants’ responses to provide authentic illustrations of the findings.

In terms of the theoretical framework, this study was informed by a social practice perspective on learning as presented by Lave and Wenger (1991). These authors argued that learning is a process of participation in communities of practice. More specifically, it is a particular way of engagement where learners have opportunities to participate in the actual practice of experts. To that end, Lave and Wenger coined the term legitimate peripheral participation, referring to the actual process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice and gradually become full participants. Related to the focus of this article, doctoral students would have the opportunities to engage in a research community and practice of expert researchers in order to become globally competent researchers.

The findings showcase knowledge and competencies that globally competent researchers require to conduct quality research. However, most importantly, they bring attention to opportunities and challenges associated with the acquisition of these competencies in South African higher education. As is evident from the findings, knowledge, skills and values that globally competent researchers need to possess are substantial and growing. In fact, the participants identified a multitude of competencies from expertise of their own discipline and research methodologies to cultural competencies, social justice orientation and moral conduct. The findings indicate that preparing prospective researchers to become globally competent goes beyond expertise of their own field: it involves exposing novices to new perspectives in order to broaden their own worldview and to comprehend the accepted norms of diverse contexts. Besides the types of knowledge and competencies that globally competent researchers require in the increasingly complex nature of research, the participants reported current spaces and practices employed at their institutions to train future researchers, mainly doctoral students in education. Some of the listed educational opportunities equipping researchers with global competencies included research workshops, supervision and mentorship, theses, research funds, and movement of researchers across institutions and nations. The findings revealed that outside of formal spaces, such as research workshops, engagement in other learning activities also provides conditions conducive to the development of future global researchers. Although most of the expectations from globally competent researchers described by the participants may appear obvious, it is evident from the findings that in practice there are several challenges limiting the acquisition of these competencies. Some of the existing challenges and limitations participants identified at their respective institutions included lack of funding and resources to support students’ conferences; insufficient training and preparation of study supervisors and promoters; and lack of time due to high teaching workloads and high demands in terms of research productivity.

Overall, the findings suggest that higher education institutions should consider expectations of globally competent researchers and evaluate on an ongoing basis the effectiveness of their current research learning opportunities. This article provides several recommendations on how to promote effective research learning practice and address some of the challenges identified by the participants. One of the recommendations related to research learning opportunities was to create a dedicated space within a doctoral programme where novice researchers may examine themselves as researchers, examine systemic inequalities and evaluate levels of inequality or discrimination in diverse contexts. It is also of essence for young researchers to have a space where they can share their ideas and freely express their disagreements in order to learn how to deal with conflicts and allow different perspectives to co-exist. Another recommendation referred to financial challenges and encouraged institutions to evaluate their existing regulations and practices related to financial support of researchers. Some practices may be based on length of service or qualifications, determining a particular profile of a researcher who receives support. A practice inclusive of incentives for novice researchers could more effectively address their development needs.

In addition, the authors encourage future research in this area and more specifically, investigation of practices, lessons and experiences through which the competencies expected of globally competent researchers are being effectively transferred. Future studies could go beyond the field of education and rely on cross-disciplinary exploration. Although this article relies on a small sample and findings cannot be generalised, it has the potential to be informative to a wider audience, including professors, researchers, postgraduate students and research management.

It is fair to conclude that if dynamics of research are shifting along with expectations from researchers, rethinking current research education in higher education institutions is in order. In short, if South Africa aims to be globally competitive in terms of research outputs and research capacity, increased attention needs to be devoted to the preparation of globally competent researchers.

Keywords: globally competent researchers; novice researchers; research capacity building; research competence; research education; qualitative study

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: ’n Suid-Afrikaanse perspektief op die voorbereiding van wêreldbekwame navorsers

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