Change the world


This article appeared in the University World News, 11 December 2015 Issue No:394

The just-published Doctoral Education in South Africa by Nico Cloete, Johann Mouton and Charles Sheppard reveals new approaches South Africa can take for a ‘radical rethink’ to meet its PhD targets. Government efforts have supported the doubling in a decade of doctoral graduate numbers to 2,200 a year, and the new research will play a key role in transforming the PhD in the coming decade.

Earlier this year the Department of Science and Technology, or DST, commissioned Professor Johann Mouton to undertake a postgraduate pipeline study. The terms of reference were simple: why do so few doctoral students enrol and complete?

The answer he gave is that most doctoral students work while they study. They have to earn an income to support families. And bursaries are inadequate to allow full-time study. That was the double bind. Interestingly, more natural science than social science students study full-time and more natural scientists than social scientists graduate.

The study drew the conclusion from this double bind – part-time study and half-cost bursaries – that a ‘radical rethink’ was required to enable potential doctoral students to be nurtured from honours level to appointments in university departments.

What sort of radical rethink? There are three approaches.

Option 1: Send PhD students abroad

The first is to send students to Europe and America for doctoral training. This is what a 2010 report on the PhD, by the Academy of Science of South Africa or ASSAf, recommended.

The PhD data they used then (more recent data shows the impact of our interventions) showed clearly that the production of doctorates in South Africa is and has remained stable for several years. It was equally clear that working only within existing systems, and taking into account available capacity, a rapid growth in high-level qualifications at the level of the doctorate would not materialise in the foreseeable future.

There are, the ASSAf said, simply not enough PhD supervisors – even assuming all those available were qualified and that the supervisor-to-student ratio was evenly spread.

The ASSAf report made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that it would cost approximately R2 billion (US$133 million) to produce 1,000 externally trained PhDs in 10 years.

There are many examples of this approach.

During the terminal years of apartheid a large number of black students – mainly masters and PhDs – went to study in the United States.

This is what the Department of Health has recently undertaken. The National Health Scholars Programme is enrolling 1,000 new PhD students in health science by 2022. A significant number of the students will be trained abroad.

This is what both India and China did and still do.

With hindsight, we know that despite the projection by ASSAf in 2010 of constrained supervisory capacity, the number of PhD students in our system has increased significantly since then. But there is no reason to doubt that sooner rather than later this capacity will be exhausted, and student enrolment will plateau.

Option 2: Invest more in universities

The second option to improve throughput from undergraduate to doctoral study is to invest more in our own universities. Not only is South Africa one of the cheapest countries for quality graduate student training, but it has a wide and respected science training base at a number of institutions.

Why would we send students outside the country to be trained at great expense, when we could train them at least as well here, and at a far lower cost?

The suggestion to train students overseas would make sense only for training that is impossible to get locally, or for the use of facilities that can only be accessed outside South Africa, for example, in places like CERN and Los Alamos.

At the moment National Research Foundation support is insufficient. A solution to the ‘PhD problem’ is to fund the people who supervise good quality PhDs to a considerably higher level, and dispense considerably larger PhD and postdoctoral bursaries for longer.

This approach would be good for senior scientists, good for their junior colleagues, good for students, good for science – and good for South Africa.

Option 3: DST’s hybrid model

The third option is the hybrid option that DST has adopted. The main long-term task is to address gender and racial imbalances in the make-up of the science and technology workforce.

We not only want to encourage more students to embark on science and engineering doctoral studies, but we are also making plans to sustain their ability to pursue research careers. Too often our research talent is lost because of the attraction of other lucrative careers.

We have taken a three-pronged approach.

First, as I announced in my budget speech this year: “We will support South African PhD students to study abroad. Under a new dedicated programme, we will start with a modest number of 50 candidates, but the number will be significantly and rapidly increased in coming years.”

Second: “We will also work to attract to South Africa a large number of young international researchers, who have recently completed their PhDs and who are looking for a post-doctoral project” – under the Newton Fund for example – so as to expand PhD supervisory capacity.

And the third prong is the promotion of split-time PhD programmes, where a student will spend a portion of his or her doctoral programme outside the country.

A radical rethink?

Is this the ‘radical rethink’ required? In the wake of the #feesmustfall student protests? Because these protests are not only about fees. The call is for free higher education. And any ‘radical rethink’ will affect the overall funding of higher education.

Simply put, the state is being called upon to invest more in undergraduate higher education. And this will impact on research funding and therefore financial support to postgraduate research training. And until fairly recently there has been little or no national conversation around this crucial aspect of university funding.

The publication of this book will help change that, and I am pleased to note that its completion is coupled to some extent with work that has been done in conjunction, between the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology or CREST, the authors of this book, and officials of the DST.

What the student fee protests have highlighted for us in the DST – the project funding wing of the dual-support funding model we use – is that while the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, supports about 25% of undergraduates, the DST is able to support only about 8% of postgraduates.

Students did not protest about postgraduate fees. They protested about undergraduate fees.

While there has been a massive increase in state student fee support through NSFAS – its share of the university state budget increased from 3.7% in 1997-98 to 13.5% in 2015-16 – the DST's support of postgraduate study has not even begun to measure up.

Our concern is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for undergraduates from a low- or no-income home to pursue a postgraduate qualification, and hence a research, scientific or high-tech career.

Then there are PhD supervisors. Are the steps we have taken within the current set-up enough to tackle our PhD problem?

In part, the South African Research Chairs Initiative, or SARChI, addresses this challenge.

And under its new Staffing South Africa's Universities Framework, the Department of Higher Education and Training has begun to establish 200 new academic posts a year over the next three years, which will also tackle the system’s constrained postgraduate training capacity.

On this challenge the two departments work closely to ensure complementarity of funding, and eliminate duplication.

Providing postgraduates with opportunities to work on high-profile, world-class research projects and infrastructure is an important intervention in attracting undergraduates into PhD programmes, and international doctoral graduates as postdocs to South Africa.

Already the Square Kilometre Array project seems to be very effective in attracting students into physics, astronomy and engineering, and retaining them through to their doctoral degrees.

The new Agulhas II research vessel is another world-class research infrastructure that is providing exciting research opportunities for postgraduate students, while strengthening a strategic research niche in marine and Antarctic research.

South Africa’s HIV-Aids research programme has attained global recognition and is providing innumerable sought-after postgraduate training opportunities. Similarly, our palaeoscience research portfolio has attracted global attention and has a bright future because of the many young researchers that are being drawn to it.

As a result of the above and other concerted efforts, South Africa’s PhD production has more than doubled to more than 2,200 graduates per annum in less than a decade.

What this book shows is that there are new approaches we can take for a ‘radical rethink’ to meet our National Development Plan PhD targets, which are more than double what we now have.

I welcome this book, which I know will play an important role in how the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Higher Education and Training, and the Department of Trade and Industry approach the transformation of the South African PhD.

This article is a slightly edited version of a speech given by Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, deputy director general in the Department of Science and Technology, or DST, on behalf of South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor at the launch of the book Doctoral Education in South Africa held in Pretoria on 2 December 2015.