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Little to show for postgraduate incentive funding

Seven years ago, South Africa introduced incentive funding for postgraduates in an effort to meet an urgent national need for more high-level skills. But new research shows that only some universities have been able to respond and that the annual increase in doctoral graduates is limping along at only 3.6% a year.

The incentive funding system has worked better in increasing research publication than PhD production, according to research by higher education consultant Ian Bunting and Charles Sheppard, director of management information at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

In the five years from 2005, there was an annual 6.2% growth in academic publications – which have long received incentive money – against the 3.6% increase in doctoral graduate production since incentive funding for postgraduates began.

Growth in research and coursework masters graduates actually declined, from nearly 6% to 4.4% a year, and nearly 7% to 1.5% respectively.

The initial findings of a research project into knowledge production in South Africa were presented at a seminar hosted by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) at the University of Pretoria last month.

Tracing the history of the project, Pretoria Vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey said it had been conceptualised in 2009 when she was heading up the Council on Higher Education, which was looking at postgraduate enrolments. The project, supported by the Ford Foundation, is now in its third and final year.

“Globally, data was showing an increase in postgraduate enrolments and graduations. But when we looked at the data from the Department of Higher Education and Training, we saw that there had been some growth in South Africa but it was modest,” said De la Rey.

“Postgraduate supervisors were arguing that they had reached the point where they could take on no more students. There were signs of growing inefficiencies. Students seemed to be piling up in the system, and so the graduation rate was static. There were also concerns about time to completion, especially at the masters level.”

This coincided with the PhD project of the National Research Foundation, which was setting ambitious targets for postgraduate production. “We needed to find out whether the targets were realistic or not,” De la Rey told the seminar.

“We needed to look at lack of finance and infrastructure, the question of whether training and supervisory models in South Africa were outdated and needed to be revised, to investigate differences between universities and provide evidence for anecdotes and assumptions.”

She said there had been important policy discussions around knowledge production, including a diagnostic report from the National Planning Commission and the Green Paper for Post-secondary Education and Training. The national target has been set at 5,000 doctoral graduates a year by 2030.

The numbers

From 1996 – when policies of the first democratic government began to be felt – to 2010, annual research publications increased from just over 5,000 to more than 9,700. PhD enrolments grew from 5,600 to nearly 11,500, while the number of doctoral graduates rose from 685 in 1996 to 1,421 in 2010.

Looking at the growth of PhD enrolments in the system by race – an exercise undertaken in South Africa to chart progress in equity post-apartheid – Bunting and Sheppard found that “the main change has been in African doctoral enrolments”.

Between 1996 and 2010 the proportion of African doctoral students rose from 13% to 44% of all PHD enrolments (5,066), while the proportion of white doctoral students plummeted from 78% to 42% (4,853), although their number nevertheless increased. The proportion of Indian and mixed-race PhD students rose from 9% to 14% in 2010.

However, the growth in African doctoral enrolments has been substantially driven by students from other African countries. “Of that group of just over 5,000 African PhD students in 2010, only 44% were South African nationals,” said Bunting and Sheppard.

Overall, by 2010 international students comprised around a third of all PhD enrolments and graduates and their graduation rate was slightly higher than that of local students.

Outputs and inefficiencies

The research has painted an early picture of the efficiency of South African higher education in terms of PhD output, and it is not pretty. The 2001 National Plan on Higher Education set a target ratio of 20% of PhD students graduating each year, and 75% of all PhD enrolments eventually graduating.

Universities have failed dismally to meet these targets and in fact, said Bunting and Sheppard, “there has been a drop in the proportion of PhDs graduating”. While from 1998 to 2002, 14% of doctoral students were graduating each year and 52% eventually graduated, by 2006-08 these ratios had dropped to 12% and 45% respectively.

So while South Africa should have produced nearly 12,300 doctoral graduates from 2005 to 2010, in fact it produced 7,700, leaving a ‘shortfall’ of some 4,700 graduates.

There are considerable differences between fields, with 55% of science and technology doctoral students eventually graduating against 41% in the humanities, 45% in education and only 37% in business and management.

Bunting and Sheppard also looked at when doctoral students drop out, and found that 22% left in the first year of study “and by the end of year two, a third had dropped out”.

Rates varied between universities, with around half of doctoral students not completing at ‘traditional’ universities, 61% at ‘comprehensive’ universities that combine academic and vocational programmes, and 63% at universities of technology.

Who benefits from incentive funding?

Government funding incentives for research outputs are complex, said Bunting and Sheppard, because of a two-year time lag between completing an output and receiving funding for it.

The research showed that the government spent a total of R2.2 billion (US$294 million) on funding research outputs in 2011-12. Of this, R1.2 billion was allocated to publication, R539 million for PhD graduates and R461 million for research masters graduates.

This translated into universities receiving R393,000 per doctoral graduate, R110,000 per publication unit and R134,000 per research masters graduate. While these high values for doctoral graduates could arguably have provided a strong incentive to universities to expand doctoral outputs, growth has remained low.

Bunting and Sheppard argue that one explanation could be that “only a few universities have been able to benefit from the introduction of government research output incentives. A second explanation is that doctoral processes in South Africa have been characterised by high levels of inefficiency.”

The research has shown, unsurprisingly, that the ability to benefit from incentive funding is related to staff capacity in universities. South Africa’s most productive universities generated on average R290,000 per permanent academic in 2011-12 against R130,000 in other universities, R66,000 in ‘comprehensives’ and R25,000 in universities of technology.

“It became clear that a lot of universities do not have the capacity to respond,” the researchers said. “And there’s also a totally pragmatic issue. Some institutions distribute publication output funds to authors, but few (if any) distribute doctoral graduate funds to supervisors.

“Academic staff members are therefore likely to gain more direct personal benefits from research publication than from doctoral graduates.”

Universities are double-dipping, by earning incentive income from the articles that postgraduate students publish and getting paid when they graduate. “Perhaps the answer is to put money into publications, and PhDs follow after that.”

Further, they argued, it should be recognised that only around 5% of all funding for teaching comes from PhD students. “So there is not a lot of financial gain to be had while students are in the PhD. Perhaps we have not got our incentives right.”

A view from the outside

Lidia Brito, a former higher education minister in Mozambique and current head of science policy at UNESCO in Paris, told the seminar that stronger collaboration between South African universities, and with others in the region and world, could be one way to improve the quality of postgraduate training and the supervisory models used to train students.

Universities might start by looking at those universities and countries with which their academics co-publish articles.

Brito also pointed out that unlike many other developing countries, such as Brazil, South Africa does not send postgraduate students abroad to train, apparently to avoid losing its best students. She also suggested that, as with Brazil, South Africa improve its coordination of and data on, research and postgraduate outputs.

“There seems to be little coordination between what the government wants – the big visions for the country – and the ability of universities to influence or deliver on these visions,” she concluded. “Coordination needs to be strengthened.”
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