SOUTH AFRICA: New funds to boost PhD production

South Africa's production of PhD graduates is worryingly low, and has even shown a slight decline despite various initiatives to increase doctorate numbers. But the National Research Foundation has launched a sweeping new funding project to tackle the problem.

The project, made possible by a hefty allocation from the government, will provide funding to doctoral students to help speed up their journey to graduation. In 2009, only one third of academic staff held doctoral degrees, according to the Council on Higher Education.

The aim of the project is to improve the qualifications of academic staff to make them better supervisors and to boost research quality and output.

Last month the National Research Foundation (NRF), a research promoting and funding agency, made a call for applicants to take advantage of R11.8 million in new funding. Grants are open to PhD students who are within three years of completing their degree, or who are about to complete it.

Being 'previously disadvantaged' is now an advantage - 60% of the funding will go to female nominees, and 80% to African, Indian, coloured (mixed race) or Asian nominees.

Two types of grants are available: a six-month grant valued at R100,000 and a 12-month grant of R200,000. One 12-month grant and around four six-month grants will be awarded per university, and two six-month grants per science council.

As previously reported in University World News, South Africa is producing PhDs at only one eighth of the rate of the European Union in the 25 to 34-year age group, and is lagging behind other emerging countries such as China and Russia, something the NRF project hopes to change.

The project has been made possible by a R250 million (US$36.3 million) additional allocation from the Department of Science and Technology (DST)'s current budget.

R100 million will go towards human resource development initiatives. Of that, R42 million will go towards honours bursaries and R11 million for postdoctoral fellowships. The DST funding is a once-off allocation in a single year, which is why the NRF is using it for one-year honours and postdoctoral bursaries, and not for masters and PhD bursaries.

But these students will still get help, with R10 million allocated to the extension of bursary support to masters and another R10 million to PhD students. Finally, R25 million will go to women and young researchers and R12 million to improving the qualifications of academics and researchers.

"In my view they have used the R100 million earmarked for human resources sensibly," Michael Cherry, professor of zoology at the University of Stellenbosch and editor-in-chief of the South African Journal of Science (SAJS), told University World News.

"But it is a drop in the ocean: the government needs to fund more full-time doctoral students nationally at an adequate level."

The issue is not that there are not enough registered doctoral candidates, but rather that too few are graduating. There were last year 10,499 registered PhD students in South Africa, yet only 1,224 graduated. That number would be at least 3,500 if the degree took the expected three years to complete.

This problem is largely a question of money. Many students hold lecturing positions or other jobs to help pay for their education, which forces them to study part-time.

The NRF project is not the foundation's first initiative to try combating the issue. The PhD Project, the brainchild of the NRF and the government, is a marketing and postgraduate student support programme aimed at attracting more students to the world of academia.

In 2005, when the project was launched, the number of NRF-supported PhD students increased by over 60%, from 1,360 in 2004 to 2,186 in 2005. But the number of doctoral graduates, which grew to a peak of 1,274 in 2007 when this initial cohort graduated, has declined slightly since then.

The project set number targets of graduating 6,000 doctorates annually by 2025 and 3,000 in science, engineering and technology disciplines by 2018, which seems an almost impossible feat when looking at the current numbers.

"Major interventions will be required if the goal is to be met," said Cherry.

A recent report by the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (Assaf) provides an analysis of why PhD numbers remain so low and offers 10 key proposals on how the country can increase its PhD graduation rates.

"Most of its recommendations are sound," said Cherry, who wrote about the report in last month's issue of SAJS.

One of the report's main proposals is to increase the number of bursaries for doctoral candidates. The NRF is currently supporting 1,983 PhD students, which makes up only 19% of candidates nationally. Increasing this number is crucial, said Cherry, and the new NRF project will go some ways to improving the situation.

"Presumably a large proportion of part-time doctoral students fall within the ranks of the two-thirds of South African academics who do not yet hold a doctoral degree," Cherry said, "and enabling them to do so would be the quickest way to raise doctoral production in the short term."

Another recommendation relates to the so-called PhD 'pipeline', a trend where students get whittled down as they ascend the academic ladder. After receiving a first degree, 42% of students go on to obtain an honours degree.

This number may seem high, said Cherry, but it is made up mostly of white students, cutting out most black students at this point. Of honours graduates, a third proceed to the masters level, and only a third of those students go on to obtain a PhD.

The report proposes boosting the number of bursaries as well as increasing the value of these bursaries to tackle the problem.

Cherry said the report's suggestion to send many South Africans abroad to obtain their doctorates is "impractical". The report states that with only a third of supervisors holding doctorates, students may find better training overseas. The NRF and its precursors have sponsored 40 students since the 1980s to study abroad, but Cherry said funding constraints make studying overseas an unlikely option for most candidates.

"No cost analysis for extending such a scheme on a large scale is presented in the report," he pointed out, "and it is difficult to imagine how it could be more cost-effective for government than if such students were funded locally".

In fact, the report found that 18% of South Africa's PhD cohort is made up of students from other African countries, mostly because studying here is cheaper than at overseas institutions. It is therefore unlikely that foreign governments would fund the training of South African doctoral students abroad, said Cherry.

More funding is not only needed for graduates, but for academic staff too. Supervisors have received declining support over recent years, even when they hold advanced degrees. Cherry sees this as a "major constraint on the country producing the increased number of doctorates it badly needs."