The current discussion on the quality of PhDs is riddled with racist undertones, even though these are superficially cloaked as quality concerns.
The problem lies in the premise of the entire project. Earlier this month, the National Research Foundation (NRF) tweeted: “The rapid increase in both the intake and graduation of SA’s doctoral candidates has raised some concerns over the quality of doctoral degrees. SA’s Council on Higher Education is set to look into the matter.”
This is a racist point of departure. Post-1994 the intake of black people in all institutions of higher learning dramatically increased. We have termed this “the massification of the university” and it does come with its pangs and strains — but across all disciplines and levels of study. We have not worried whether the quality of the LLB or engineering degrees has suffered in light of higher enrolments. At some point, enrolment rates could start tampering with quality — that is without doubt. But this is a point to return to.
The PhD is a prized qualification but it is also a political and employment advancement tool within the higher education sector. Gone are the days when one could be a dean without a PhD and, simply by virtue of promotion to the position, you would become a “professor”.
Yet, those who earned their professorships without PhDs have not been asked to renounce these promotions and embark on PhD journeys.
The same PhD-less people had significant responsibilities to develop the postgraduate studies pipeline. Some were competent at it and others downright pathetic. Some were deliberately pathetic to frustrate the number of PhD students who went through their hands. This is because a PhD graduate becomes more relevant than the PhD-less professor, given that future job or career-advancement opportunities seek a PhD qualification.
However, this gatekeeping is suffering a massive blow. The black academics who have secured their PhDs have worked very hard to ensure that they produce a significant pipeline of black PhD graduates. Vusi Gumede is right on this point in his article “Is there a doctor in the house? We need more PhD graduates”, Daily Maverick, November 13 2019.
These black academics often choose this path at great sacrifice of their families, health and opportunities to make financial gains through consulting.
Their mission is to build a cohort of the next generation of black scholars. On their part, this is a deliberate action to realise the transformation project of the academy.
There are white academics who completely get this too and work around the clock to ensure black scholars graduate. The truth, however, is that although we problematise the issue of “too many PhD students”, we are failing to admit that there aren’t enough black South African students registered for PhDs. Part of the enrolment increase is accounted for by international students, from the rest of the continent and abroad.
Are enrolment levels at PhD level increasing because we have academics who want the hard slog of supervising more students? Is the increase part of the transformation dividend and a victory against gatekeepers who for too long took on too few students? Which areas of the academy are experiencing high influx and which are lagging behind? Why is the default position to rush for quality?
I heard Professor Sioux McKenna of Rhodes University saying “the structure of the PhD has changed” over the years when speaking to Radio 702. She did, however, not elaborate on how the structure has changed. Was she insinuating that the structure has changed in ways that could compromise quality?
Which structure is she alluding to, given that universities have different criteria for admission, supervision, ethical considerations, PhD programming, thesis presentations and, finally, the awarding of the PhD. Gumede noted these differences in the article I cite above.
The next issue to be questioned is the age of PhD students. Some will say they are too young. That is all gatekeeping claptrap. Many leading scholars today in the US received their tenure as professors after completing their PhDs in their late 20s and early 30s. So this concern must be laid to rest. I am aware of some respected South African academics who have alluded to this age issue.
If there is massification of numbers in any space that used to be a preserve of white people during apartheid, we know that this is a result of growing enrolments from black students.
Once you problematise high enrolments and graduations, the logical conclusion is that you did not expect black people to do so well at this level of study. The fact that they are doing well is possibly being weaponised as an indication that the standards have been dumbed down and, therefore, quality is compromised. This is racist. It further misrepresents the rigidities and hurdles that confront black people in attaining their PhDs. The success of these students demonstrates that black people remain a race of achieving “against all odds”.
There is also a misconception that people pursue PhDs for certain jobs. This is not true. Some people have no desire to leave corporate or public service but they still pursue PhDs to satisfy their intellectual curiosity or to fulfil their ambition. The idea that intellectuals and thinkers must be found only in universities is a fallacy.
In fact, the South African public service is filled with some brilliant minds who are PhD holders. They may be functioning within a state that has a poor political vision but that does not take away from their individual intellect. Because the academy is insulated, however, there aren’t enough opportunities for these people to play an active role in academic life.
If some of these industry gurus were to be associates or visiting scholars at our universities, we would have even greater capacity to produce more PhD graduates.
We definitely need a conversation about the PhD programme. Quality must be part of the conversation but not in the vague and superfluous ways it is being bandied about today. I know scholars who refuse to be rated by the NRF because they do not have faith in the system’s ability to rate scholarship.
Now the NRF and Council on Higher Education will determine the quality of PhDs. Who will sit on that review panel? Will it be some of the academics who refuse to supervise certain research topics because they “are not rigorous enough”? That is their way of saying they are illiterate on the topic or, worse still, that it may give new knowledge on how best to advance the transformation project. There are many students whose research topics have been refused as “too political”, “too radical” and so on. That is what gatekeeping is.
What does a quality PhD look like in a transforming higher education landscape that is also seeking to decolonise? This is the first question to be answered.
But the point of departure for the current investigation into quality is problematic and just wrong.
Lukhona Mnguni is a PhD candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal