Job insecurity in South Africa’s higher education sector : towards a deeper understanding

Lara C. ROLL, Sebastiaan ROTHMANN, Hans DE WITTE

Research output: Book Chapters | Papers in Conference ProceedingsConference paper (refereed)Research


Job insecurity was identified as one of the major reasons for South Africans to emigrate, causing a severe brain drain from the country. South Africa (SA) is currently facing subdued economic growth combined with high unemployment rates. The higher education sector (HES) is particularly affected, both in terms of research funding cuts and significant changes to the university budget following the so-called “Fees Must Fall” student protests in 2015/2016. The government has granted students’ demand for free education for lower-income students, which until today creates a lot of uncertainty regarding how universities will be compensated for the significant income loss. Therefore, we focused our research on SA and in particular on university staff. The goal of our study was to a) examine the prevalence and the severity of job insecurity in the HES, b) get a deeper understanding of the perceived causes for job insecurity, c) identify how job insecurity affects university staff, d) obtain first-hand insights on how staff members cope with job insecurity and e) gather recommendations on what university management can do to support their staff members.
We interviewed a total of 39 academic and support staff members from a traditional university and a university of technology, both government-funded. The study was advertised via email until data saturation was achieved. Regarding academic staff, we ensured to interview employees from various job levels, ranging from junior lecturer to full professor. For support staff, we included at least one member from each of 14 previously identified job families, e.g. administration, finance, technical services and marketing. The average duration per interview was 45 minutes. All interviews were conducted in English, as it is the language of instruction at both participating institutions. Each interview was audiotaped and subsequently transcribed. We conducted a content analysis using Atlas.ti software to identify broad themes in the data and develop a coding structure using an iterative process.
Results showed that most participants perceived job insecurity as a serious issue facing the HES. Causes included insecurity regarding the political developments following the “Fees Must Fall”movement, Black Economic Empowerment efforts, lack of organizational justice, and the overall economic situation of the country. Staff members linked job insecurity to their individual health issues and spillover into the family, as well as reduced work engagement and performance. An insightful array of suggestions for how employees could potentially cope with job insecurity in addition to ways for university management to support their employees was collected. Coping recommendations included enhancement of employability, ensuring a financial buffer and finding meaning in life outside of the university position, among others. Management support would be highly appreciated in terms of, for example, authentic appreciation of ones’ work, fairness in restructuring procedures and enhanced communication. Hence, findings from this study are highly relevant and beneficial for both employees and management.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication13th European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology Conference : Adapting to rapid changes in today’s workplace
EditorsKevin TEOH, Nathalie SAADE, Vlad DEDIU, Juliet HASSARD, Luis TORRES
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherEuropean Academy of Occupational Health Psychology
Number of pages1
ISBN (Print)9780992878641
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sep 2018
Externally publishedYes


Cite this

ROLL, L. C., ROTHMANN, S., & DE WITTE, H. (2018). Job insecurity in South Africa’s higher education sector : towards a deeper understanding. In K. TEOH, N. SAADE, V. DEDIU, J. HASSARD, & L. TORRES (Eds.), 13th European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology Conference : Adapting to rapid changes in today’s workplace (pp. 65). European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology.