Are national goals for doctoral education realistic?

South Africa’s National Planning Commission, in its 2011 National Development Plan: Vision for 2030, set out a series of goals for improving education, training and innovation in order to promote economic development by using the information-knowledge system as a driver. Two of those goals relate directly to doctoral education.

First, noting that South Africa currently produces only 28 PhD graduates per million population – compared to 48 in Brazil, 187 in Korea and 264 in Australia – the National Development Plan (NDP) proposes that the number of PhD graduates per year, which was 1,421 in 2010, be increased to 5,000 by 2030.

To achieve this increased output, South African universities would inevitably require a greater number of appropriately qualified academic staff and yet, in 2010, only 36% of academics in higher education had a PhD. The second goal then is to have this percentage increased to 75% by 2030.

It was against this policy backdrop that results from a study on doctoral education in South Africa, commissioned by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, were presented at a seminar organised by CHET, “Knowledge Production in South African Higher Education”, on 23 February 2012. The seminar was hosted by the University of Pretoria.

The data on doctoral education in South Africa over the period 1996 to 2010 provide a good background against which the NDP’s goals can be assessed.

Over that period, PhD enrolments increased from 5,164 in 1996 to 11,590 in 2010, an overall increase of 124% over 14 years, the average annual growth rate being 5.9%. The figures for graduating PhDs were 685 in 1996 and 1,421 in 2010, giving an overall increase of 107% and an average annual growth rate of 5.4%.

The 2001 National Plan for Higher Education in South Africa specified two important targets in relation to doctoral education: first, that the ratio of doctoral graduates in a given year should be 20% of the doctoral enrolments in that year; and second, that at least 75% of the cohort entering doctoral studies in any given year should eventually graduate.

The CHET study analysed the doctoral education data to determine whether these targets had been met.

From 1998 to 2008, the ratio of doctoral graduates to graduate enrolments varied from 12% to 14%, significantly less than the national target of 20%. The cohort graduation rates varied from 45% to 52%, again considerably below the 75% target.

The CHET study estimated that over the period 2000-10, there was a shortfall of 7,474 doctoral graduates as per the targets set by the 2001 national plan, clearly illustrating the inefficiencies in doctoral programmes in South Africa.

Targets unrealistic

Viewed against these historical data, the set target of producing 5,000 PhD graduates per year by 2030 appears unrealistic.

Over the decade from 2000-10 the number of PhD graduates produced annually increased by roughly 48%. Assuming the same trend of increase, the figure would be approximately 2,100 for 2020 and 3,100 for 2030.

There seems to be no evidence at present to indicate that there would be a significant improvement in efficiency in doctoral programmes in South Africa, especially when one considers the current acute shortage of PhD-strong academics and the need to substantially increase undergraduate enrolment, which would augment the teaching loads of academics.

Also, one needs to factor in that about a third of PhD graduates from South African universities are regional or international and therefore would presumably return to their home countries.

Let us now consider the second national goal for 2030 – that of escalating to 75% the percentage of academics having a PhD.

In 2000 the overall proportion of academics with a PhD in all public universities was 32%; a decade later, in 2010, that figure had increased to only 36%. There was significant variation among the universities. In the five research-intensive universities, the proportion was 45% in 2000 and 48% in 2010. In the six universities of technology (former polytechnics) the figure increased from a low of 5% to 15% over that period.

In terms of actual numbers, the total academic staff in universities rose from 14,184 in 2000 to 16,684 in 2010, an increase of 18%, whereas the corresponding figures for total academics with a PhD were 4,561 and 5,957 and 31%.

Assuming that the rate of increase in total academic staff over the next decade would be similar to that of the previous decade, the total academic staff in 2020 would be about 20,000. Assuming now that the proportion of those staff with a PhD would then have reached 55% (halfway into the plan period) gives us a figure of 11,000 staff with a PhD, an increase of 85% over the 2010 figure.

This does not seem realistic. If we extrapolate to 2030, the figures become even more unrealistic.

Goals should be reviewed

There is sufficient evidence to show the almost linear relationship between the economic development of countries and their research output as well as the number of skilled personnel employed.

However, especially for countries that are in transition from a developing to a developed status, extending that relationship to the number of PhD graduates and their doctoral research output may need to be cautiously examined.

There is no doubt that South Africa needs an increased number of PhD graduates, in all areas, for its existing and new universities. But it is not obvious that a large number of PhD graduates in different areas would be easily absorbed in sectors other than higher education.

The National Development Plan makes no mention of priority areas for doctoral education. In many sectors good graduates or those with a masters degree may be adequate. The strategy then should be to identify priority areas for development where doctoral graduates would be required.

With regard to research output, not all research needs be carried out at doctoral level. Research centres for specific priority development areas could be set up, either as separate national entities or within research-strong universities. The research undertaken then would be more relevant and the findings more quickly available to the relevant stakeholders.

Finally, the 75% target of PhD holders in South African universities may need to be reviewed. That target may be appropriate for the research-strong universities but not for those institutions that have a stronger teaching mission.

Even within a research-strong university, some professional or vocational departments may not need a large number of PhD holders – having a good masters degree and a professional or pedagogical qualification may be more appropriate for the majority of staff.

In outlining its research and higher education policies, South Africa should use differentiation and targeting as its guiding principles. Of course, as it moves towards a fully fledged knowledge economy it may need to revise that strategy.

* Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary general of the Association of African Universities and former president of the International Association of Universities. He was vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius from 1995 to 2005. He is currently a higher education expert and consultant, and a member of the governing council of the United Nations University, among other roles.