/ 17 November 2017

Promise of PhDs doesn’t add up

'There appears to be a link
'There appears to be a link

Our higher education system has been awarding ever more PhD qualifications for the past 30 to 40 years. For about half that time, those working closely on policy and curriculum issues for this level of study have been advocating a more robust, sustainable model that can bring about significant growth in student participation and throughput rates at this level of study.

Although it has taken some time, it appears that they have been heard. The government has expressed plans to include PhD education growth as a priority.

The National Research Foundation offers a PhD support programme, which has been improved, in response to national education development priorities.

The National Qualifications Framework, since the publication of the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework in 2013, provides a more differentiated classification of the types of doctoral qualifications that may be attained at this level of study. The Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework also groups this typology according to student type and programme components.

Thus, it may be inferred that some measured consideration is occurring about the doctorate and how it contributes to the development of a South African knowledge economy and society made up of highly skilled knowledge workers.

Nevertheless, when I read about or listen to some of the debates about PhD education in this country, it awakens a disquiet within me. One cannot help but wonder what is missing from realising the government’s vision of 5 000 new doctoral students a year until 2030, as outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP).

The reality is this:

Enrolment and graduation rates at all higher education institutions are low compared with the government’s vision. These rates are even lower when compared with the international throughput rates of developed and even some developing countries, as pointed out by Cloete, Mouton and Sheppard in Doctoral Education in South Africa: Policy, Discourse and Data (2015).

Nationally, South African higher education institutions are managing graduate outputs of about 3 000 students a year per one million of the overall population. This falls far short of the 5 000 students a year target expressed in the NDP.

Funding has been identified as a limitation and excludes or delays interested students.

Associations such as the Association of Science in South Africa are advocating for better funding and propose that most of the resources that would be added as a result of the NDP should go towards programmes in the fields of science, engineering and technology. Although this is imperative, it would be short-sighted to build resource capacity in such a skewed manner.

Our overall student throughput rate is a drop in the ocean in relation to the tenfold more successful PhD-producing countries such as China (40% growth rate a year) and Mexico (17.1% growth rate a year), or those countries that already have high PhD production rates such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada (growth rates of about 5% a year).

What our system needs is growth across academic disciplines to raise the overall growth rate.

According to Cloete et al, policy imperatives and discourses about PhD production centre on the issues of quality, efficiency, effectiveness and transformation, the last specifically in relation to issues surrounding equity and internationalisation.

But capacity in the system has remained largely unchanged. More academic staff hold PhD qualifications these days, which is a positive area of growth for the system. Despite this, though, the prevailing scenario is that, for every 10 staff members with PhD qualifications, only three to five students are being supervised.

This could be because qualified staff are not sufficiently experienced to supervise PhD students or their workload teaching undergraduate students limits the extent to which they can be involved in PhD supervision. Given the overall constraints on teaching capacity, it is probably a little of both.

Some faculties are also not managing to attract students for PhDs easily because of the situation in corporate and professional environments that make it “unnecessary” or “undesirable” for working professionals to add “study” to their “work-life” balance.

Remuneration scales tend to be much higher in certain types of work environments. This is where public-private partnerships become of greater importance in securing the enrolment of a larger number of students from the corporate sector, for example.

National planning also identifies the government’s intention to attract larger numbers of international students, particularly from Africa. This could become a problem and create resentment if we cater successfully to the international market when our local students are not suitably accommodated in the system.

This brings me to the point about what the purpose of a PhD is and why it is considered worthy of achieving. There are concerns that there is a mismatch between what a PhD is and what is seen as one of the main contributing components of a know­ledge economy.

There appears to be a link, at least on paper, between the number of people with PhD qualifications and economic growth. This kind of thinking is tied to the idea that South Africa needs, and wants, to position itself as a knowledge society made up of large numbers of highly qualified and skilled knowledge workers who can help to grow the economy.

Nevertheless, there is so little that is concrete in terms of practical thinking and attempts at focused curriculum development to indicate how research is informing how PhD programmes are offered to students.

To make the NDP’s intentions about PhD education a reality, I suggest that three important questions need to be considered:

  • Does our system attract sufficient streams of funding to support PhD students and is information about this easily accessible in the public sphere?
  • Does our system allow for active recruitment of students according to a strategic agenda?
  • Isn’t it time we take our heads out of the clouds and work at more focused, practical solutions to ensure success at this level of study?

We encounter the sentiment that strategic planning is for the good of the “knowledge economy” and the “knowledge society” that form part of the South African dream, but I suspect that we have not yet put our heads together to work out how.

Fatima Slemming is a researcher and the director of WordProof, a writing and research services company based in Cape Town