/ 5 December 2019

The model of PhD study at South African universities needs to change

The dominant model of PhD study in South Africa remains the one-on-one model where a student works with one or two supervisors
The dominant model of PhD study in South Africa remains the one-on-one model where a student works with one or two supervisors




In “The PhD quality debate has racist tones”, (Mail & Guardian, November 29 2019), Lukhona Mnguni writes: “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?”

I certainly do not think the change in structure has compromised quality. In fact, my argument is that the doctorate hasn’t changed nearly enough because universities are essentially conservative spaces.

The dominant model of PhD study in South Africa remains the one-on-one model where a student works with one or two supervisors, rather than in a project team surrounded by peers and supervisors working together.

This “master-apprentice model” is largely found in the humanities and social sciences and is implicated in the poor throughput at PhD level. The model can exacerbate power differentials between student and supervisor, which can be better mediated in a team or cohort approach where everyone has an opportunity to learn from each other.

Another name for this model is the Oxbridge tutorial model of study and, as the name suggests, it is a colonial legacy. The irony

is that most universities in the United Kingdom no longer rely exclusively on this model and draw on a range of approaches to PhD education.

PhD study in South Africa is conservative in other ways too. Our legislation states that coursework done at doctoral level may not be for credit, with the result that few universities offer any coursework.

This is, in my view, a mistake because coursework provides opportunities to go beyond the confines of the specific PhD topic and in today’s complex world, working with skills and topics across disciplinary boundaries is essential.

Coursework can also provide structure and an induction into the significant intellectual requirements at doctoral level.

Given that many of our PhD students are studying while holding down full-time jobs, such structure can be a huge support.

Although I am bemoaning the slow pace of change in the nature of the doctorate, I acknowledge that many shifts have taken place. For example, more and more students are undertaking PhD study for industry and not for academia, which was the historical purpose of the degree.

This means we need to focus on different aspects of knowledge-making. Significantly, we need to ask questions about who the doctorate is for.

Given that it is subsidised by tax-payers, we need to know that the degree serves the public.

As to the issue of the forthcoming quality review, it needs to be borne in mind that it is not doctoral students or their theses that are being reviewed. The review is a review of universities.

Some universities in South Africa might be tempted to enrol PhD students to get the subsidy attached to them, even if they do not have sufficient supervision capacity.

Students may well not get the kind of care and intellectual support needed and be left to sink or swim. As a country we cannot let this happen.

The rise in doctoral graduates has been significant but the rise in PhD enrolments has been even steeper with more and more candidates dropping out or getting “stuck” in the system. Universities need to account for how they are attending to this issue.

I have concerns about aspects of the forthcoming review (and with quality assurance in general), but I hope it will serve current and future doctoral candidates well and ensure they get a fair deal from their institutions. They deserve it and the country needs them.

Professor Sioux McKenna is the director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University