Doctoral qualification standard gets favourable review

Academics have given the thumbs-up to a draft document that aims not only to increase the number of doctoral degrees in South Africa but to improve national standards by providing a watertight system that rigorously guarantees quality.

The document, put together by a group of academic experts who supervise and assess doctoral studies under the Council on Higher Education (CHE), describes minimum standards for doctoral degrees and supervision, and has been under public scrutiny for three weeks. It was published on 26 September and the public had the chance to comment until 14 October.

It states that its aim is “to set benchmarks for acceptable quality across the national higher education system, including both public and private institutions, on a par with global standards”.

PhD graduates are required to have a broad knowledge of their fields or disciplines and to make an “original contribution to knowledge”. They must have “expert, specialised and in-depth” knowledge of their research area. Doctoral graduates should also have an awareness of ethics and interdisciplinarity and have an “advanced level of communication competence”, which includes communicating findings to fellow researchers and the public.

Ability to work autonomously

Another requirement is the ability to work autonomously. Universities are tasked to define conditions for enrolment and selection, and how policies supervision and appointment of supervisors will be achieved.

The document says that a general doctorate degree, usually undertaken after completing a masters, requires a minimum of two years’ full-time study and, after completion, a graduate should be able to supervise and evaluate the research of others.

A professional doctorate, which provides education and training for professions or industry, would require someone to combine coursework and advanced research, of which 60% constitutes a research component.

Universities are required to ensure that there is adequate research and support infrastructure for PhD students, as well as set minimum and maximum times to complete degrees. Procedures for assessment and submission of theses, including an appeals process against examination results, should be in place.

Designed to maintain programme standing

The document states the standard is “designed to help ensure that the higher education institutions in South Africa not only maintain the standing of their doctoral programmes and graduates, but seek, through innovation and enhancement, to develop their procedures and quality assurance”.

The CHE said that after comments from the public had been considered in detail by the relevant standards development reference group, further drafting would, if necessary, be undertaken to accommodate these.

According to the 2011 National Development Plan, South Africa is committed to scale up the production of doctorates to 5,000 per annum by 2030, with 100 PhD graduates per million population. Public higher education institutions produced 2,797 doctoral graduates in 2016, 10.6% more than in 2015 (2,530 PhD graduates) and 102.7% higher compared to the 2009 figure (1,380 PhD graduates). Between 1996 and 2013, doctoral graduates increased by an average of 6.4% per annum.

“It is my informed view it [the standard of doctoral qualification] is a response to the growing national concern on the production of the quality and meagre number of doctorates produced in the country, which has planned to produce 5,000 a year, but barely makes it to just above 50% currently,” Damtew Teferra, professor of higher education training and development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told University World News.

‘PhD may require 10,000 hours’

Commenting on the draft, Professor of Genetics at the University of Pretoria, Brenda Wingfield, said the document does actually “talk to time”.

Wingfield, who published an article in the South African Journal of Science in 2010 assessing the time required to complete a PhD, told University World News she was not convinced that a student who has just completed a masters qualification was realistically able to get to the level suggested in the minimum period of two years which equates to 3,600 hours.

“I have suggested that a PhD requires 10,000 hours of time,” she said. “Assuming that one can include the time to get a masters in this equation, 3,600 hours plus 1,800-3,600 hours for a masters does not add up to 10,000 hours,” she said.

While she conceded that in some cases students have had experience outside studying for a degree and in this case may well be able to achieve the required standard in just two years, most cases were different.

Appropriate research must be done

“My 51st PhD student has just graduated and my experience with PhD students is that they are finished when they are finished and some just take time to get to that point. As a supervisor I have a responsibility to guide, support and sometimes prod, but at the end of the day the student needs to do the appropriate research,” she said.

Wingfield noted that the draft addresses the need to have “adequate provision for unusual circumstances”, as this takes into account the many different reasons that she has seen resulting in students taking longer than the desired three to four years.

“It is essential that we have a standard … [that] is in line with international standards. In most fields, persons with PhDs from South African universities are competitive internationally,” she said. “In order to maintain and grow this, we need to train persons with PhDs of an internationally high standard.”

Wingfield added that the draft covers everything she would expect from a PhD graduate and “the nodes in the doctoral cycle” that guarantee quality of candidates at the entry level, doctoral programme, supervisor qualification, doctoral graduate exit and thesis quality have all been equally unpacked.

‘There is a lack of mandatory modules’

Teferra, a founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, wrote in the South African Journal of Higher Education in 2015 – about the production and exportation of excellence and sub-standard doctoral education in South Africa – that PhD training offers students exposure and nurturing as they engage in a rigorous research process that results in a PhD dissertation.

However, he said in the South African context, and most other African countries, there is a lack of mandatory modules and courses, and resistance towards rigorous structures, even when technical subjects clearly call for training.

The completion of a thesis by a doctoral student does not necessarily prove they have fully or even partially grasped the subject, considering the existence of “shadowy academic service providers” who, for a fee, collect and interpret data and offer substantive editorial support. As a result, it becomes difficult to assume a student deserves a PhD on their own merit, he added.

Teferra was critical of the system of some universities, whereby candidates don’t have to defend their theses publicly at the end of their studies. He called for a “watertight system that rigorously guarantees quality and prevents fraud” – which is an issue that the standard would tackle.