Vacancies ‘an opportunity to reshape South African mathematics’

Three hundred mathematicians expected to have retired by middle of the century

July 27, 2023
Paternoster, South Africa – May 07, 2022 Two fishermen rowing out to sea to catch fish.
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Mathematics in South African universities could be reshaped as hundreds of vacancies are created over the next 25 years, according to a leading scholar.

Speaking at a National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences colloquium held at Stellenbosch University, Loyiso Nongxa said 300 vacancies would arise through retirements between 2023 and 2050.

“Depending on how institutions choose to fill the vacancies, the current profile of the mathematical sciences landscape might not change that much,” the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand told Times Higher Education.

“If institutions choose to fill those vacancies with same expertise [not much will change], or the landscape may be shaped differently by investing in areas that we want to strengthen for a variety of reasons.”

The sector will, therefore, have the chance to diversify existing research concentrations and create new areas of research specialisation.

Professor Nongxa, a professor of mathematics, said little would change in the sector’s mathematical landscape unless more was done to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.

“An obvious example would be finance, where mathematics, especially the Black-Scholes models, revolutionised finance,” he said.

“And the limited understanding of those that applied these models might have partially contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.”

The vacancies also present an opportunity to include more women, said Professor Nongxa – noting that only one female academic has obtained an A-rating from the National Research Foundation since 1983.

“We are duty bound to address gender disparities and inequities in all walks of life, not only in mathematics and not only in South Africa,” he said.

“The ‘gender gap’ is of global concern, especially in the mathematical sciences.”

Professor Nongxa said women were under-represented across South African academia – including professors, rated researchers and recipients of research chairs.

Karin-Therese Howell, an associate professor in Stellenbosch’s department of mathematical sciences, said role models and mentors were central to attracting more female learners and supporting female academics.

To help address this, Dr Howell said, the African Women in Mathematics (AWiM) organisation has created isiXhosa and Afrikaans versions of posters depicting the history of women in mathematics.

Using data from a 2023 report by Stellenbosch’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, Professor Nongxa said that in 2020, there were 528 mathematics academics in South Africa, of whom 61 per cent had a doctoral qualification.

Of all the academics, just under a third were women and more than 60 per cent were over the age of 50.

“Unless we take deliberate steps to transform the current knowledge base, this situation, by 2050, will be the same,” he added.

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