Postgraduate funding needs a boost

Every year September 30 is an important date for prospective university students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. It is the closing date for admission applications, while the National Research Foundation is expected to have finalised its plan for 2020 postgraduate funding.

Since 1994 and the advent of democracy, government and universities have pursued equity in higher education in the context of limited public finances, leading to uncomfortable choices and trade-offs. The situation appeared to reach breaking point and, in 2015, a wave of #FeesMustFall protests swept across many universities.

The net result of the protests was the introduction of an expanded model for a National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which has helped significantly in addressing funding — albeit only at the undergraduate level.

That decision came with unintended consequences, notably that the private sector has slowed its financial contribution to the undergraduate bursary arena.
An obvious reason for this could be that there is now an “alternative” for this education tier. Another factor could be the sluggish economy.

Amid this, economies are becoming knowledge intensive and the demand for higher order skills is increasing. It is clear that there is a need for an expanded postgraduate specialisation base. Concomitant with this is that the education system has to be increasingly relevant and responsive to the changing needs of the economy, especially as a result of the technological advancements of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

The big question is whether South Africa is producing enough postgraduates, with the requisite skills and, if not, what the key obstacles are. To answer this is to state the obvious: the dearth of skilled labour is an enduring problem in the country.

Funding students at postgraduate level in targeted, specialist areas across various fields could be a necessary intervention and a game changer. The focus has been on undergraduate resourcing, but it is apparent is that postgraduate resourcing issues are reaching critical levels.

This trajectory, which is evident in other parts of the continent, is of concern and we could see a future edition of #FeesMustFall, unless the South African economy improves and postgraduate support increases.

A worrying trend is that while cohorts of student enrolment in postgraduate education have increased dramatically, this has come with its own problems related to efficiency, scale and quality. These include the long time it takes students to complete their studies, a high dropout rate, limited supervisory capacity and advanced age at completion.

These challenges are more pronounced for black women and those people from working class backgrounds — with both categories urgently needing adequate postgraduate funding. In 2017, there were 173 441 postgraduate students, 65% of whom were black.

One of the main agencies tasked with funding postgraduate studies is the National Research Foundation (NRF), which currently funds 9.2% of all postgraduate students. This costs just under R1-billion a year.

A snapshot of who was funded revealed that it was only 7% of honours/Bachelor of Technology students, 9.2% of master’s and 15.6% of doctoral students. Of greater concern is that, while larger numbers of students applying for NRF postgraduate funding are fundable (in 2017, 60% of master’s and doctoral students were recommended for funding), but only 41% of these students were able to be funded.

In 2018, the NRF noted the limited reach of its postgraduate funding, and said that its ability to shift the system is fundamentally constrained. A sobering statistic is that of all the postgraduate students funded by the NRF from 2010 to 2014, only 1.4% have been successfully supported from honours to doctoral study.

Transfers of funds to the various universities constitute the department of higher education’s largest spending area and the state budgets to the university sector are projected to grow from R43.9-billion (2017-18) to R73.3-billion in 2020-21.

But, the proportion of government funding to universities decreased from 49% in 2000 to 40% in 2017. This shortfall was made up through student fees, which increased by 42% from 2010 to 2017. This is an increase of 9% a year in contrast to the 5% to 6% inflation rate. What is concerning is that the current funding practices remain skewed towards undergraduate education, and have a limited effect on transformation and overall equity in higher education.

There is a need for greater synergy in the government in respect of funding needy students at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. There needs to be an alignment between the undergraduate and postgraduate pipeline and throughput. The NRF and NSFAS have a complementary mission, focusing on undergraduate and postgraduate studies respectively.

Although funding of bursaries and scholarships through either the NRF and other funders or the universities’ own sources is the most direct mechanism, it is not the only mechanism.

Funding for research projects often includes allocations for postgraduate support either through bursaries and scholarships or through opportunities such as employment as tutors and assistants on a part-time basis.

Such employment is often needed because many scholarships and bursaries don’t fully fund postgraduate students. Industry also provides funding, which enables employees to study at postgraduate level on either a full- or a part-time basis.

This calls for a co-ordinated approach to ensure comprehensive resource allocation at this level.

Postgraduate funding plans

The 2019 NRF policy, which revised the modality of postgraduate funding, is a timely and welcome move, especially the proposal for funding the full cost of study.

The proposal, however, suggests a redistribution model in the same pool of funding, albeit with increases for inflation. The overall level of expenditure on postgraduate study has to increase, in line with the National Development Plan target, to contribute to human capital development and economic growth.

This has to be addressed through the higher education department, the department of science and innovation and the treasury, and possibly through an intergovernmental initiative.

The second important area is the improvement of efficiency in the postgraduate phase, which will also release funding for postgraduate studies because it will attract increased allocations from the department as a result of increased graduations and the reduced time taken by students to complete their studies. This must be done while still ensuring high-quality postgraduate education.

The third opportunity is created through external and, in particularly, private-sector funding. There is a benefit to this sector, for example, through mission-oriented research and innovation, which initiatives constitute an approach to building the next “competitive edge” for the sector and simultaneously enabling human capacity for the longer term.

A fourth option is to temporarily relax the visa regime to encourage the inflow of skilled labour, which will mitigate the pressure on public funding, leading to improvements in economic competitiveness.

Investment in postgraduate education is a private and public good. A concurrent focus must include strengthening workplace and industry linkages to support postgraduate study in a structured way.

Perhaps herein lies the answer. Could a range of tax instruments and incentives, including for research and development, with tertiary education institutions, aligned private-public sector investment and development, in areas such as the 4IR, help bolster the necessary skills for the future?

Professor Shireen Motala is senior director at the postgraduate school and Professor Saurabh Sinha is deputy vice-chancellor, research and internationalisation, at the University of Johannesburg

Shireen Motala & Saurabh Sinha

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