/ 9 February 2015

PhDs hold key to SA’s development

Research platforms: The Agulhas II research vessel
Research platforms: The Agulhas II research vessel


Advanced science and technology touch most aspects of modern economies and contemporary living. It is unrealistic to conceptualise a future for any country in which the roles of science and technology are diminished rather than enhanced.

Our economic processes and products, the provision of public services, our efforts to address unemployment, poverty and inequality – these will all become more dependent on advanced science and technology, not less.

Inasmuch as science is key to the production of knowledge, and technology central to its exploitation, their importance to our economy, national development and everyday life will inevitably grow and South Africa’s economy will become more knowledge intensive.

The modernisation of South Africa’s economy must, and will, be driven by inputs from science and technology, delivered through properly trained and highly skilled scientists, technologists and engineers.

Apart from being able to manage high-tech processes and infrastructure, they also need to be able to develop new processes and products through research and ­innovation, and to train new and increasing numbers of scientists, engineers and technologists.

In important ways, these processes are dependent on people who have been trained to the level of a doctorate, which is universally regarded as the trade ticket for a trained scientist and researcher.

The benchmark for achievement
For this reason, the number of PhD graduates per million of the population is often used as a benchmark for levels of scientific and (by implication) economic achievement. The National Development Plan (NDP) has adopted this indicator, arguing that South Africa should reach the point where it produces 100 PhD graduates per million of the population every year, against the current 38 or so. By comparison, most developed countries produce well over 100 PhDs per million of their populations every year, and even some emerging economies operate at this level, though there is considerable variance within both groups.

Government’s focus on the PhD as a driver of development must be understood in this context – the PhD is an input into national development, the modernisation of our economy and improved public services.

It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The ambitious NDP benchmark provides both a strategic focus and a sobering context when compared with the current level.

On the part of government, the departments of higher education and training, and of science and technology, regularly review the status of PhD training, and implement a range of interventions to improve output.

For instance, in a major and much-discussed intervention, the higher education and training department linked university funding subsidies to graduate output, and the science and technology department increased its allocation for postgraduate bursaries from R150-million in 2009 to R450-million in 2014, with a rise to more than R700-million every year from 2016 onwards.

During this time, the total number of postgrad students the science and technology department supported rose from less than 5?000 to 10?000 (and doctoral students from 250 to 2?500), and the demographics improved. The South African Research Chairs Initiative has established 150 new senior research posts in the universities, through which 1?600 postgraduate students are supported, and the national Centres of Excellence programme supports 650.

Perhaps the key challenge is access to financial support for postgraduate students. Although the National Student Financial Aid Scheme supports about 20% of undergraduates, the science and technology department is able to support only about 8% of postgraduates.

Hindering transformation
This gap makes it difficult for the average undergraduate from a low-income home to pursue a postgraduate qualification, and hence a research, scientific or high-tech career – and it reduces the rate of postgraduate demographic transformation.

Another challenge is the limited capacity of the current system to supervise a large increase in the number of postgraduates. Their output suggests that research-active South African academics are highly productive, and further increases are not feasible in the short term without an expansion in their number.

In part, the research chairs programme addresses this challenge. Other state initiatives that aim to address the constrained postgraduate training capacity of the ­system include the higher education and training department’s Research Development Grant, which focuses on enhancing the supervisory and research capacity of academic staff, and the department’s New Generation of Academics programme, through which it plans to establish more than 2?000 new academic posts within the next six years.

Less directly but just as important, higher education’s teaching development grant allocates more than R600-million a year to improve the ­effectiveness of undergraduate training, thereby increasing the pipeline of students eligible and prepared for entry into postgraduate studies.

Providing postgrads with an opportunity to work on high-profile, world-class research projects and infrastructure is another important intervention in attracting undergrads into PhD programmes. Already the Square Kilometre Array project seems to be very effective and efficient 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 facility that could provide exciting research opportunities for postgraduate students, while strengthening a strategic research niche in marine and Antarctic research for South Africa. South Africa’s HIV and Aids research programme has attained global recognition and provides innumerable sought-after postgraduate training opportunities.

As a result of these and other concerted efforts, South Africa’s PhD production more than doubled to just under 2?000 graduates a year (the 38-odd per million of population mentioned above) in less than a decade. Although this falls short of the 6?000 doctoral graduates required annually, it nonetheless constitutes a steep increase.

In this context, the NDP benchmark remains ambitious. However, with ongoing growth in support and focused determination among all stakeholders, it may be achievable.

Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde is deputy director general of research development and support in the department of science and ­technology