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Opinion - Star academics broaden social capital by establishing viable networks

2021-04-09  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Star academics broaden social capital by establishing viable networks
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One of the crucial pillars of the higher education sector is the concept of social capital that comes in different forms, the commonest which are local and international collaborations, networks and partnerships. Commenting on academics’ outbound mobility in the realisation of the internationalisation of higher education as a result of partnership agreements between institutions, Wooley et al. (2008 p. 166), aptly observed that “scientific mobility can be understood as a process through which individuals seek to simultaneously enhance their individual capabilities (human capital), but also to become integrated into, and build, research collectives and professional connections (social capital).” So, when academics go on exchange programmes to international institutions (outbound mobility), they enhance both their human capital and social capital. Consequently, such successful and effective academics, often referred to as star academics or “A”- rated academics, are the ones whose social capital bases are broad, solid and dynamic.

 These “A”- rated academics have international links in almost every academic activity they are engaged in comprising teaching, research and community service. They collaborate in research with fellow academics in different higher education institutions. They attract huge international funding for research and development in their areas of specialization. In addition, these hardworking scholars get donations of equipment and other teaching and learning materials from their partners for their institutions.  

Since they come from different academic environments, collaborating academics enhance their individual human capital by learning from one another. The collaborative research work results in knowledge transfer. The collaborating teams of researchers form academic discourse communities with their own values, rules and regulations that regulate the activities of these international communities and networks. The social capital in this regard brings confidence and a sense of belonging to researchers from different institutions. The academics co-author research papers, book chapters and academic books. Also, they extend their social capital by organizing international symposiums, conferences and colloquiums in which they present the findings of their researches.

 Experience has shown that academics with a rich and broad social capital have an exceptionally high research output rate annually than academics who have few or no networks at all. Highly productive professors in our local higher education institutions have published two or three books and several articles per year. This remarkable achievement sometimes goes unnoticed and without any reward, but this has not dampened the spirit of some of these academics who take pride in the production and communication of knowledge with or without recognition. I have talked to such researchers who assured me that there is nothing which can stop them from extending their social capital as they research and publish their works not to please anyone. Some academics have indicated that they are not surprised when international institutions and bodies recognize their efforts and reward them, fulfilling the Biblical saying, “Only in his home town and in his own house is a prophet without honour.”

While it is common practice that academics can successfully widen their social capital on their own, higher education institutions that enter into partnerships and collaborations with other institutions in the world facilitate collaborations of academics in this regard. It is therefore the task of international relations units in higher education institutions to strengthen the internationalisation of education by signing memorandums of understanding (MoUs) and agreements with international institutions for the benefit of not only academics but also students and other interested staff members. However, it has been observed that institutions may have many agreements with partner institutions without meaningful collaborations taking place. Some critics have provided evidence that shows that most of the agreements signed between institutions have been lying dormant and gathering dust in offices. This inactivity has been blamed on the lack of conscientisation of academics about the benefits of establishing social capital through initiating collaborative projects with their counterparts in partner institutions. In such cases, the onus is on international offices and management to make relevant information available to faculty and students and to explain the benefit of widening someone’s social capital in academia. While star academics can take action on the opportunities availed to them without problems since they can initiate their own collaborations without the assistance of international relations units and management, there are laggards among academics who need to be galvanized into action. There are also the uninterested who are contented with offering the bare minimum of their efforts in academia, and not bothered about extending their social capital despite opportunities of international collaborations staring in their faces. Such non-performing academics are the kind that has not published a research paper in years.

The existence of associations and other bodies in academia is another manifestation of the importance of collaboration and networking. Practical examples are the Association of African Universities, the Southern African Quality Assurance Network and the Association of the Development of Education in Africa. These associations and many more offer opportunities for academic networking and collaboration for academics in Africa. 

As I write, the African Association of Universities has lined up the following webinars for academics: mentoring pedagogy, teaching and applications of ICT tools for online teaching and learning; development of online experiments and laboratories for remote and in-situ education; and online teaching techniques/technology tools for practical/lab-based lessons in the times of emergencies. 

In summary, social capital plays a significant role in the creation of the human capital of academics. Higher education institutions should offer incentives to academics for them to meaningfully extend their social capital through establishing health relations and networks with other academics internationally. It should also be borne in mind that academics’ social capital is beneficial not only to themselves but also to their students and institutions. The positive effects of social capital on academic success of academics and institutions are well documented in the literature on social capital theory and education.

2021-04-09  Staff Reporter

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