'Unless SA gets smarter, we will get poorer'

Bold intervention is needed to increase the number of PhD graduates in SA, a study released on Monday by the Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) has found.

The production of doctorates in the country had been stable for several years, Assaf’s Professor Jonathan Jansen said in Johannesburg at the presentation of a study on demands for high-level skills in an emerging economy.

“... In the context of current systems and capacity at South African universities, there is little hope that rapid growth in high-level qualifications at the level of the doctorate will materialise in the foreseeable future.”

The report was produced by an expert study panel, led by Jansen.

South Africa’s production of PhDs per million compared poorly with other countries such as Portugal (569 per million) and Australia (264 per million) per annum. The country only produced 26 PhD graduates yearly per million of the total population.

The study found that most of the doctoral graduate class of 2007 were white South African men in their thirties.

While the age of doctoral graduates and ratio of male to female graduates in the country had remained fairly constant over recent years, with men outnumbering women on overage by about three to two, there had been fairly significant shifts in the racial composition—with a greater proportion being black and non-South African.

The overall share of South African students decreased from 89% in 2000 to 73% in 2007.

In engineering sciences, material and technologies, the share of women graduates remained “critically” low, with only 15% of the total in 2007.

“Women are well-represented among doctoral graduates in both health and social sciences.
However, only about a third of graduates in natural and agricultural sciences and in humanities were female,” said the report.

In humanities, the share of women increased from 2000 to 2007, and in natural and agricultural sciences it decreased over the same period.

Female representation was significantly better among white doctoral graduates in all fields, with the exception of two. In engineering sciences, materials and technologies, only 11% of female graduates were white, while 22% were black.

Compared to black graduates, relatively larger shares of white graduates were younger than 30-years-old. However, in social sciences and humanities, the representation of younger people was critically low for all races.

The study found that for doctoral graduates in all other fields of study, higher education remained the main employer both before and after graduation.

“War” for talent
Assaf vice-president Professor Robin Crewe said it was important that doctoral graduates were absorbed by the government and private sector. He emphasised that PhDs were not only valuable for the academic sector.

There was a “war” for talent globally and South Africa could not afford to lose the few PhD graduates it produced.

“This will cost our country if we do not improve ... Unless we get smarter, we will get poorer.”

Crewe said the country’s wellbeing, and winning the fight against poverty and global warming needed smarter people.

The study called on policy-makers, government, schools and higher education institutions to improve the quality and quantity of PhD students in the country.

Jansen said: “Constraints on doctoral production also lie deep within the school system, where only 16% of graduating matriculants qualify for university entry.

“From the very start of undergraduate entry, the pool of available students from whom postgraduate entries will be determined, is very small.”

To increase the number of doctoral graduates, the study recommended sending students overseas, which had proven successful during apartheid, when large numbers of black students studied in the United States.

There was strong capacity to provide high-quality PhD education overseas.

With regard to funding, the report called for a significant increase in funding levels for doctoral studies, with a particular focus on shifting the balance of students towards full-time study.

It recommended strengthening the quality of the school system at its foundation and sharply increasing the number of matriculants with high-quality university entrance passes, especially in mathematics and science. Furthermore, the most promising honours and masters students to enter doctoral programmes should be targeted at an early age.

Advocating public support for PhDs would lead to greater awareness and acceptance of their significance in social and economic development.

Universities and industry should strengthen their relationship so that larger numbers of doctoral students were trained and supported through learning in practice. - Sapa

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