Hard choices over doctorates

Following this week’s launch of a study showing how dismally low South Africa’s production of PhD graduates is, government now faces politically and financially loaded choices centred on implementing the study’s ambitiously radical recommendations.

Doctoral data from all 23 universities between 2000 and 2007 show that South Africa is near the bottom of PhD-producing countries worldwide, the Academy of Science of South Africa’s (Assaf) groundbreaking study reveals. Commissioned by both the higher education (DHET) and the science and technology (DST) ministries and launched on Monday night, the study was led by Assaf vice-president Jonathan Jansen.

By internationally accepted comparative standards (measured by size of population), only Chile ranks lower than South Africa in its production of PhD graduates, the Assaf study shows. And South Africa in turn scores well below countries such as Iceland, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary and Estonia.

An incredible 83% of South Africa’s PhDs were produced by only nine of the country’s 23 universities between 2000 and 2007—and these are overwhelmingly the historically advantaged institutions.
In 2007—the latest year for which data are available—the country produced only 1 274 PhDs, well below comparable economies globally.

“For South Africa to be a serious competitor in the global knowledge economy ... both the quality and quantity of PhDs need to be expanded dramatically,” the study says.

Of 2007’s 1 274 PhDs, only 454 (35%) were in science, engineering and technology (SET). Yet in this field alone, the country needs 1 200 PhDs every year—a five-fold increase in merely this field—to meet the DST’s projection of 6 000 SET graduates by 2018. This while the social sciences produce most PhDs, with a headcount nearly five times that of engineering sciences, materials and technologies.

The study is blunt in outlining both the political and the funding implications of its 10 recommendations.

One is to invest even further in the universities that already produce nearly 90% of PhDs. “So what are we going to do?” Jansen asked at Monday night’s launch of the Assaf study. “Pretend that all 23 universities can produce doctorates or differentiate [that is, designate only some universities as research institutions and fund them accordingly]?”

The Assaf research team “discussed targeting the top seven or so universities”, Jansen said, “but will this be accepted by government and others?”

Financial needs are starkly evident in Assaf’s number-one recommendation—that the state fund hundreds of South Africans to study for PhDs overseas. About R2-billion would be needed to produce 1 000 PhDs in this way in 10 years, the study offers as a “back-of-the-envelope calculation”.

Publicly available records by themselves suggest how extreme both financial and political pressures now are upon the two Cabinet ministers most involved—Naledi Pandor (DST) and Blade Nzimande (DHET).

Pandor is “highly unlikely” to meet the targets for PhD graduates in SET determined by her own department’s “Ten-Year Innovation Plan”, according to the National Advisory Council (Naci) on Innovation’s annual report for 2009-2010.

Of related concern for Pandor must be that “there is a high overall risk of underperformance” in all “the natural science, technology and innovation targets”, according to Naci, which legislation mandates to advise both the minister and the Cabinet.

For Nzimande, pressure derives at least partly from his frequent public references to both the performance agreement he will sign with President Jacob Zuma and the imperative to increase the number of postgraduates.

The DHET and DST will approach the treasury about “incentives to ensure a steady pipeline of PhD students”, Nzimande’s spokesperson Ranjeni Munusamy said.

For both ministers, further pressure comes from the internationally attested quality of the Assaf study. “While many countries collect good data regularly, having both qualitative and quantitative data in one and the same place together is extremely rare,” said Maresi Nerad, professor of the centre for innovation and research at the University of Washington.

“Actually, I do not know of one [other] country that does,” said Nerad, who is the author of several major academic studies of research practices wordwide and contributed to some of the Assaf study’s research.

Yet more pressure on Nzimande and Pandor may well derive from two landmine questions raised during Monday night’s discussion at the Assaf launch: Will producing more PhDs really meet South Africa’s developmental needs and are there anyway enough people willing to sacrifice several years’ earning potential to undertake a PhD?

View the full PhD study (this also has transcripts of all the interviews Assaf conducted during its research)

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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