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South Africa as a continental PhD hub?
Internationally, the importance of the doctorate has grown. Heightened attention has not been predominantly concerned with the traditional role of the PhD – providing a future supply of academics – but has focused on the increasingly important role higher education is perceived to play in the knowledge economy, specifically with regard to high-level skills.

If knowledge and information are the new electricity of the economy (Castells 1993) [1], then it is a reasonable assumption that the university – as the main knowledge institution in society – will become increasingly important, and that its apex training product, the PhD, will appear on the skills radar (Gorman 2013) [2].

Africa has not been left out of the debate, and in recent years there have been several international and national seminars and reports on the PhD topic, including a workshop in 2013 of the National Research Foundation in South Africa and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

There, African Union Commission Chair Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said: “You must look at ways to train thousands more PhD students on the continent” (Namuddu 2014) [3].

Doctoral education in South Africa

Over the past two decades, the dominant debate in higher education in South Africa – as in many other parts of the world – has been about access and equity.

But in 2012 a shift in discourse from equity to development became apparent in proposals of the ministry responsible for national planning, suggesting that central to a highly productive, globally connected economy were high-level skills and extensive participation in higher education.

The first draft of the National Development Plan: Vision 2030 released by the National Planning Commission, or NPC [4] embraced the knowledge economy argument: in fact, it was so enthusiastic about knowledge production that it declared that “knowledge production is the rationale of higher education” (NPC 2011).

This is a radical departure from the traditional role of higher education in Africa: namely the dissemination, through teaching, of knowledge from elsewhere. It is also a significant departure from the post-apartheid focus on higher education as an equity instrument to provide mobility for the historically disadvantaged (Cloete et al 2011) [5].

The basic argument underlying the National Development Plan, or NDP 2030, runs as follows: raise the qualifications of staff – increase the number of academics with PhDs – and the quality of student outcomes will improve. It is also assumed that this will significantly improve throughput, the capacity to supervise higher degrees and, ultimately, the research productivity of the sector.

Unlike any previous policy document, the NDP made a number of bold proposals, including the aim of producing more than 100 doctoral graduates per one million of the population by 2030. Roughly speaking, this means that the annual production of doctoral graduates would have to increase from 1,420 per annum in 2010 to 5,000 per annum in 2030.

Following the NDP 2030 report, the Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor announced that the government would need to set aside an extra US$580 million a year to produce 5,000 PhD students a year (Kahn 2014) [6].

She argued that South Africa lacked supervision capacity and additional measures would include supporting researchers who are capable of supervising postgraduate students, and creating incentives for students to remain in the system up to doctoral level.

Another ambition of the Department of Science and Technology was to increase the proportion of black researchers from 28% in 2014 to 40% in 2016-17 and to raise the proportion of women from 36% to 50% (Wild 2014) [7].

Most recently, NDP 2030 envisaged South Africa as a regional hub for higher education and training. The White Paper for Post-School Education and Training (DHET 2013) [8] noted that hosting large numbers of international students – especially Southern African Development Community, or SADC, students – represented a major contribution by South Africa to the development of the sub-continent.

But the simple reality is that if South African higher education wants to achieve the target of 5,000 or more PhD graduates per annum, then the system will have to enrol and graduate more students – from South Africa, the rest of Africa and the rest of the world.

Trends among local and international PhD students

The following figures and trends among local and international PhD students show how far down the road South Africa has already travelled towards being a regional PhD hub.


  • Post-apartheid in South Africa, doctoral enrolments overall increased by 171% from 5,152 in 1996 to 13,964 in 2012 – the 6.4% average growth per annum was considerably faster than the average undergraduate growth of 3%.
  • From 2000 to 2012, South African enrolments increased from 5,117 to 9,152 – a growth rate of 79%. This compared to an increase from 975 to 4,698 (382%) among international students and, within this, enrolments among students from the rest of Africa increased from 573 to 3,901 (581%).
  • In 2012, South African students were still contributing to almost half the total enrolments (9,152 out of 13,964), although enrolments among all international students were growing at almost three times (14% versus 5%) the rate of the South Africans.


  • In 2012, similar to enrolments (65.5%), South Africans of all races constituted 66.5% (1,249) of all doctoral graduates, while international students constituted a 33.5% (630) share.
  • From 2000-12, doctoral graduates increased from 834 to 1,879, a total growth of 125%. The number of South African graduates increased from 700 to 1,249 (78%). International graduates increased from 134 to 630 (370%) and, within this, graduates from the rest of Africa increased from 70 to 521 (644%).
  • The fastest growing group of graduates were students from the rest of Africa, with an average annual growth rate of 18.3%, which was three-and-a-half times faster than the South African group.
  • In 2012, South Africans were still contributing around two thirds (1,249 out of 1,879) of total graduates, but the number of international graduates was growing almost three times faster (13.8% versus 4.9%) on average per annum.
  • Seven years after registration, the completion rate for all international students was 47%, compared to 45% for South African students.

Institutional, country of origin and race differentiation

  • The university system in South Africa is notably differentiated in terms of producing doctoral graduates. The University of Cape Town (676) produced the most international doctorates during the post-2000 period, followed by Stellenbosch (559), KwaZulu-Natal (554), Pretoria (497), South Africa (467) and Witwatersrand (414). Together, these six universities produced 70% of international PhDs for the 2000-12 period.
  • In 2012, students from 59 countries around the globe obtained a PhD in South Africa. Zimbabwe (142), Nigeria (76), Kenya (43), Uganda (29) and Ethiopia (23) produced 50% of the international PhD graduates, with the United States (23) in sixth place.
  • In 2010, among the South African students, African enrolments (5,065) first exceeded white doctoral enrolments (4,853), and in 2012, African graduates (821) for the first time in the history of South Africa exceeded white graduates (816).

Trends among African PhD students


  • In 2000, the number of South African-African enrolments (990) was almost double those of the rest of Africa (526), but by 2012 there were 750 more enrolments from the rest of Africa (3,717) than the South African-African (2,967) enrolments. The annual growth rate was almost twice as fast for students from the rest of Africa (17.7% versus 9.6%).
  • With regard to gender, female South African-African enrolments increased from 336 in 2000 to 1,306 in 2012, a total increase of 288%, while enrolments among females from the rest of Africa increased from 114 to 1,034, a total increase of 807%. The annual growth rate for female PhD enrolments for the rest of Africa was 20.2%, almost twice as fast as for South Africans (12%).
  • Enrolments of African female PhDs in South Africa and the rest of Africa have increased at higher rates than for their male counterparts: 12% on average for African females in South Africa compared to 8.1% for African males; and 20.2% for females from the rest of Africa, compared to 16.9% for males.


  • In 2000, there were 105 South African-African graduates, compared to 49 from the rest of Africa. By 2012, graduates from the rest of Africa totalled 496, against the 325 among the South African-Africans. The average annual growth rate was 9.9% for South African-Africans compared to the 21.3% for the rest of Africa.
  • The number of South African-African female graduates increased from 26 in 2000 to 104 in 2012 – a 300% increase. By contrast, female graduates from the rest of Africa grew from 14 to 136 – a total increase of 871%. The annual growth rate differences were very similar to those for enrolments: 12.2% for South African-African females and 20.9% for females from the rest of Africa.
  • While the growth in graduations was the highest for females from the rest of Africa, males from the rest of Africa improved their graduation efficiency the most, with an average annual growth rate of 21.5%.

South Africa as a PhD hub?

There are three key factors that contribute to the possibility of South Africa becoming a PhD hub for the continent.

The first is the considerable investments the South African government intends to make towards increasing PhD production; improving supervisory capacity among academics; providing incentives for students to remain in the system up to doctoral level; and supporting jobless graduates in work experience in science, engineering and technology institutions.

The second is related to significant increases in doctoral enrolments and graduations – within the higher education system as a whole and, specifically with regard to internationalisation – in enrolments and graduations among international students, and in particular among students from the rest of Africa.

A third factor is that, relatively speaking, South Africa is an inexpensive destination for PhD candidates from other African countries.

In the United Kingdom, the average tuition fees for a full-time research PhD in education or the social sciences at Bath University are US$6,600 for UK and European Union residents and US$21,450 for students from other countries. With living costs at around US$18,000 per annum, the total comes to around US$46,050.

In the United States, at the University of California, Berkeley, the fee for non-residential students in the humanities and social sciences is US$31,397. With living costs around US$23,000, the total comes to US$54,388. The first year of a PhD in education at New York University starts with tuition at US$41,303, US$3,500 for health costs and a US$25,687 cost-of-living stipend, bringing the total to US$70,490.

By contrast, South Africa is a bargain.

In the five universities – three in the Shanghai top 500 – that produce 61% of PhD graduates from the rest of Africa, the cost in terms of tuition (full-time in the social sciences) is on average US$2,000, plus another US$1,000 for foreign student fees, medical aid etc. The cost of living is estimated to be around US$10,000 per annum, bringing the total to US$13,000.

Factors standing in the way

But there is also a range of systemic, capacity, financial and attitudinal factors that potentially stand in the way of South Africa realising the aspiration of becoming a PhD hub for Africa.

The first is immigration policy relating to foreign PhDs. While obtaining study visas is quite – though not always – straightforward, there is ambiguity regarding allowing academics and graduates to remain in South Africa.

Although one way for South Africa to grow the supervisory capacity to produce the 5,000 PhDs a year is to employ academics from other African countries, immigration policy relating to foreign academics and foreign skills has become ambiguous and uncoordinated.

In June 2014, new guidelines for work permits were promulgated, but a published list of ‘critical skills’ deemed essential to the economy contained 40 areas – of which more than 30 are in South Africa’s new global research niche area of astronomy. This implies an end to international appointments within the humanities, law or social sciences.

Second, although postgraduate students from elsewhere in Africa are seen as attractive – a ‘golden triangle’ contributing to racial transformation, as well as efficiency (completing studies a bit more quickly than local students) and quality (reputedly good writing skills) – there is also pressure on academics to train more black South Africans.

Also, reference can be made to what could be termed ‘middle-class xenophobia’ where the new African middle-class, with access to policy influence, is trying to reduce competition for lucrative professional positions and lifestyles.

Third, while many see the presence of rest-of-Africa postgraduate students and academics as ‘brain circulation’, there have been complaints that bright candidates are not returning from South Africa – implying an intra-continental brain drain.

South Africa as a PhD hub with brain circulation

It is contended that South Africa and Africa should look at the idea of ‘EdHubs’ proposed by John Aubrey Douglass et al (2011 and 2014) [9, 10] of the University of California, Berkeley.

The EdHubs model enables the enrolment of more high-paying ‘out-of-state’ students, and creates a space where universities can imagine themselves as knowledge hubs that respond to both regional and national economic needs, as well as to the thirst of a growing world (African) population for high quality tertiary education.

This could sit comfortably with the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training, which states that hosting large numbers of international students could represent a major contribution by South Africa to the development of SADC, and that strengthening Southern African economies will also boost South Africa’s economy.

The NDP 2030 actually suggests that South Africa establish itself as a hub for higher education.

If South Africa is to focus its internationalisation efforts on postgraduate – and specifically doctoral – education, postgraduate education should become more closely linked to an innovation, brain circulation economy-migration model.

However, experience and studies have shown that brain circulation could only be achieved if conditions in the rest of Africa’s flagship institutions provide environments – and particularly research environments – which stimulate continental collaboration.

It could be argued that there is a confluence of factors that make South Africa a possible PhD hub for Africa – in particular, national policies that stimulate doctoral education, the ‘golden triangle’ for certain universities, and market forces (competitive pricing).

However currently, with the exception of a few politically-correct references to the rest of Africa, official policies are nationalistic in that they focus on how to improve South African higher education and how to make South Africa a knowledge economy.

There will need to be an agreed and coordinated approach by government departments, rather than the counterproductive pursuance of contradictory policies.

In addition to coordinated political will, more monitoring would need to include the tracking of student mobility – who goes back to where, who stays, and where do they get employed?

All in all this points to a more rational, research-informed and consultative approach among all collaborators if South Africa is to be a PhD hub with brain circulation, and not just another version of internal continental brain drain with inevitable xenophobia and accusatory transformation discourses.


  • 1- Castells M (1993) “The University System: Engine of development in the new world economy”. In: A Ransom, S-M Khoo and V Selvaratnam (eds), Improving Higher Education in Developing Countries. Washington DC: The World Bank.
  • 2- Gorman C (2013) “Talent and Human Capital: Why it determines today’s business success”. Times Literary Supplement, 27 March 2013
  • 3- Namuddu K (2014) Expanding and Sustaining Excellence in Doctoral Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa: What needs to be done? Report of a workshop convened by the National Research Foundation, South Africa, and Carnegie Corporation of New York: “Expanding and Sustaining Excellence in Doctoral Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa: What needs to be done?” 27-29 October 2013.
  • 4- National Planning Commission (2012) National Development Plan: Vision 2030: Our future – Make it work. Pretoria: National Planning Commission.
  • 5- Cloete N, Bailey T, Pillay P, Bunting I and Maassen P (2011) Universities and Economic Development in Africa. Cape Town: Centre for Higher Education Transformation.
  • 6- Kahn T (2014) “Science minister calls for R5.8bn to raise PhD output”. Business Day, 23 July 2014.
  • 7- Wild S (2014) “State eyes black and female graduates for research funding”. Mail & Guardian, 22 July 2014.
  • 8- Department of Higher Education and Training (2013) White Paper for Post-School Education and Training: Building an expanded, effective and integrated post-school system. Pretoria: Department of Higher Education and Training.
  • 9- Douglass JA, Edelstein R and Hoareau C (2011) “A Global Talent Magnet: How a San Francisco/Bay Area global higher education hub could advance California’s comparative advantage in attracting international talent and further build US economic competitiveness”. Research & Occasional Paper Series, Centre for Studies in Higher Education, CSHE.9.11.
  • 10- Douglass JA, Edelstein R and Hoareau C (2014) “Bring the World to California: A global hub for higher education”. BOOM: A Journal of California, 4(1): 54-61.
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