SOUTH AFRICA: Study abroad to boost PhDs - proposal

An expert study has recommended that a large number of South African students be sent abroad to study for doctoral degrees over the next 10 years, as one way to scale up the number of PhDs produced and boost the country's knowledge and innovation system. The proposal is one of 10 contained in a report launched last week by the Academy of Sciences of South Africa, Assaf.

It is based on 24 key findings about the South African PhD and embraces the fundamental premise that capacity in the current higher education system is inadequate to meet the national goal of 6,000 science, engineering and technology graduates by 2018 - a five-fold increase in current numbers.

Entitled The PhD Study: An evidence-based study on how to meet the demands for high-level skills in an emerging economy, the report highlights the need for a realistic assessment of existing national production capacity and resources. It also calls for a "creative plan" for moving the various elements of the science system in the same direction and proposes an "overarching and interconnected national planning strategy" to achieve it.

The study was authored by an eight-member team of education experts led by University of Free State Vice-chancellor Professor Jonathan Jansen. Taken together, its findings present a comprehensive sketch of the current South African PhD landscape.

South Africa produces between 23 and 27 PhDs per million of the population per annum. Between 2000 and 2007, this amounted to an average of 1,039 doctoral graduates per year.

Although numbers of PhDs are growing, at around 6%, South Africa sits at the lower end of the PhD production scale, completely outperformed by such countries as Portugal, which produces 569 PhDs per million of the population per annum, Australia, which produces 264 per million, Korea at 187 per million and Brazil at 48 per million. The United States and the United Kingdom produce 201 and 288 per million per annum, respectively.

The Assaf study found that in 2007, most doctoral graduates were white South African men in their thirties. Improvements in racial representation, the study found, were offset by similar increases in numbers of non-South African graduates, with the overall share of South African doctoral students decreasing from 89% in 2000 to 73% in 2007.

Most doctorates are produced in the social sciences, with these graduates outnumbering their counterparts in engineering sciences, materials and technology disciplines by five to one.

Among the report's recommendations is a call for urgent attention to so-called pipeline issues on the basis that "constraints on doctoral production lie deep within the school system".

According to the study, only 16% of school-leavers qualify for university entrance. "So, from the very start of undergraduate entry, the pool of available students from whom postgraduate entries will be determined, is very small,' the report states.

But there are also pipeline challenges within universities themselves - the structure and design of undergraduate programmes and the "anachronistic" honours degree which prevents students from entering a masters programme directly.

This prompted the study panel to recommend the introduction of stronger incentives for students in early postgraduate programmes and the creation of innovative programmes to attract and retain larger student numbers.

Included in recommendations aimed at eliminating barriers to greater numbers of doctoral students and the pool of competent supervisors, the study suggests that the creation of graduate schools at individual institutions could enhance throughput rates and become centres for marketing, recruiting and retaining top doctoral students.

Defending the recommendation to send South Africans students to overseas' institutions, the Assaf study argues that inadequate numbers of competent supervisors is a "very real constraint" on the overall capacity of the higher education system to produce the requisite number of doctoral graduates.

The study found that the average ratio of doctoral students to supervisors in 2007 was about 2:1 across all institutions and only a third of all permanent academic staff members at public higher education institutions in South Africa hold a doctorate.

"There are simply not enough supervisors, even assuming all those available were qualified and that the supervisor [to] student ratio was equally spread. This means that any attempt to rapidly increase the number of doctoral graduates will have to happen outside of universities," the report states.

The study also suggests that public-private partnerships would have only limited impact on increasing student numbers as universities - as the only institutions able to award degree qualifications - would still need to be integrally involved.

It argues that the recommendation for sending PhD students to international universities "with massive external funding" has a successful precedent in the large number of United States-funded black postgraduate students who were sent to that country for tuition during the terminal years of apartheid. The report notes that over 90% of graduates returned to South Africa to work in government and the private sector.

The report estimates that the cost of producing 1,000 foreign-trained PhDs in 10 years to be about R2 billion and calls for leadership by the South African government, its major departments and the National Research Foundation in the implementation of such an initiative.

The injection of large numbers of externally-trained PhDs across all fields over the next decade would address the lack of supervisory capacity in South African institutions, inject intellectual diversity into the knowledge system, build bridges between local and international knowledge systems and introduce new approaches to graduate education, states the report.

Other recommendations include the expansion of funding levels for doctoral studies to enable more students to study full time, the promotion of public awareness around the significance of a PhD and the application of strong quality assurance measures to the PhD to prevent "irresponsible massification" of the degree in the light of funding incentives, and to improve quality.

To access the full report, visit