It has become common in recent years to refer to "the PhD crisis" in the tertiary education sector. Typically, this refers to two issues: the low number of PhD graduates per capita relative to other countries and the small proportion of full-time academics (34%) with a PhD qualification.
An increasing number of people cite these factors, particularly the low number of PhD graduates, as being responsible for lower rates of economic growth — that there are not enough of them to create a substantial number of jobs.
But there is no evidence to suggest a causal link between the number of PhD graduates and economic growth. If anything, the causal relationship is more likely to be in the other direction — increasing national wealth should lead to a greater numbers of students who want and are able to continue their studies up to the PhD level.
Although the national planning commission's document is also often cited in the same breath as those issues, a closer look at it reveals that its emphasis on the PhD is not motivated by growth per se.
A seemingly more plausible argument is that a PhD is a good proxy for other traits and a reflection of a high standard of individual academics. But there are also problems with this.
First, it seems evident from staff and faculty lists that many of South Africa's universities are ill-equipped to produce PhD graduates of a high calibre. Despite anecdotal evidence of poor graduate dissertations, there appears to have been no attempt to gauge the quality of current PhDs, which is necessary before encouraging universities to produce more. This basic planning mistake appears throughout current higher education policy, with, for example, two new universities planned although so many existing ones are dysfunctional or of dubious quality.
Betrayed by substandard degrees
The inability to produce high-quality graduates is more obvious at the undergraduate level. Much has been made of the large pool of (understandably) angry unemployed black graduates, but less has been said about whether they have been betrayed by being given substandard degrees.
Note that the betrayal here is likely to be threefold: students have typically received inadequate basic education; they have been led to believe that a university degree provides a better chance of employment than other less glamorous artisans; and they received a tertiary education that is substandard.
But universities are being encouraged to increase the number of students admitted and increase graduates without any substantial changes to the system.
Another problem is an inadequate distinction between the merits of PhDs in different areas. For example, there are many socially and economically valuable forms of further study or qualification in areas such as engineering or medicine that do not require a PhD, although in fields such as nanotechnology or geology it may be difficult to get adequate experience without one.
In the first case, a PhD is unnecessary, and in the second it is useful whether the individual stays in academia or moves to the private sector. The same is not true for a degree in theology, a case in which it is evident that the argument about economic growth is silly.
The distinction matters when, for example, a drive to increase PhD graduates to increase economic growth is met by an increase in humanities PhDs, who are not integrated into the academy. In this case, the direct social benefit is essentially nil.
Building infrastructure is easier than developing good academics
The need to distinguish between the merits of PhDs in different disciplines raises what is arguably the most important problem with the current rhetoric of crisis: the primary role of the PhD in practice remains, at best, an induction of sorts into the research side of academia. The drive for more PhD graduates is, therefore, somewhat farcical because there is little in the way of succession or development planning in most university departments. Building infrastructure is — thanks to a well-developed construction sector — easier than developing good academics, but the latter is evidently much more important.
In academia, there is often a remarkably laissez-faire attitude towards human resource planning. Consequently, there is essentially no national co-ordination on the development of young academics for local universities and some departments lurch from one staffing crisis to another.
Top-tier universities increasingly seem to rely on being able to attract international academics when posts become vacant, thereby papering over their failure to produce and retain high-quality PhD graduates. That failure is felt more acutely by lower-ranked universities that are typically unable to produce those kinds of individuals themselves and, therefore, have to settle for staff who may be underqualified.
This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle because even when good, research-focused local academics might consider posts at these universities, they are deterred by the lack of research opportunities and heavy teaching loads, thereby ensuring the persistence of a two-tier tertiary education system.
Although the planning commission document arguably overemphasises numerical targets, it does make it clear that PhD graduates should become "staff or post-doctoral fellows". Implicit in that is the need for well-defined career paths and the recognition of talented individuals, something also important for the racial transformation of the academy.
A popular excuse for the lack of transformation is that talented black students, who have come from poor backgrounds, are lured into the private sector by high wages with which universities cannot compete.
This is only partly true. For a start, entry-level university salaries are relatively attractive and a recent study found that the remuneration of South African academics is generous by international standards.
Finding the shining stars
Furthermore, in many faculties little effort is made to identify promising students, mentor them and provide them with an idea of the career path envisioned for them, ensure that adequate funding is available and encourage them to consider an academic career.
Instead, when faculties or individual professors receive grants, they only then start looking around for young, especially black, South African PhD students.
But that is usually too late and instead we have the incongruous sight of educational institutions bemoaning a lack of skills.
Unfortunately, the tension between the short-term objectives of senior academics and academic managers and the longer-term social problem of succession and institutional development is not directly addressed, even by the planning commission's document, which, in its brevity, omits some key details. For example, postdoctoral positions can be a strategic way of retaining young academics until permanent posts become available, but they are too often a way of profitably casualising academic labour.
To see the plan's emphasis on increasing the proportion of academic staff with PhDs from 34% to 70% as an objective in itself and not taking into account the broader context neglects the fact that a PhD is a very crude measure of qualification.
Many, probably most, PhD graduates are incapable of doing innovative independent research and, as with most academics, lack any teaching qualifications. So, in what sense are they "well qualified" — by virtue of their degree, the ticking of a box traditionally required within the academy for promotion?
Blinded by obsession
Given South Africa's social needs and the scarcity of public resources, we cannot afford to ape the strategies of our developed world counterparts. Targets can be useful to focus minds, but the current obsession with PhD numbers obscures the real problem, which is not unique to South Africa. It is a lack of human resource development and planning in academia.
This calls into question the widespread rhetoric about Africa-centred education and knowledge production. What exactly, in an era of free online resources and long-distance qualifications from top international institutions, are South African universities going to add to teaching when these responsibilities are devolved to part-time staff or foreigners? What is the prospect, in the medium to long term, of making distinctively South African contributions to knowledge (where this is relevant) once the previous generation of scholars has eased into their retirement?
If people insist on talking in terms of macroeconomic indicators, which is usually inadvisable in terms of the academy, let us ask what possible prospect there is of decreasing unemployment and eliminating the shortage of skills in South Africa when even institutions tasked with producing skills cannot manage, or do not care, to ensure the production and retention of local talent? In most cases, the primary benefit of a PhD is a graduate's subsequent progression into an academic career.
The real PhD crisis, then, is the failure to develop and retain new generations of local scholars. The numbers of PhD graduates and academics holding PhDs are at best tangential to this much more fundamental issue. As Mahmood Mamdani has argued, "we have no choice but to train the next generation of African scholars at home … [and] postgraduate education, research and institution-building will have to be part of a single effort".
Seán Muller is a lecturer in the University of Cape Town's school of economics