Concern over time PhD candidates take to complete studies

The time taken for doctoral students in South Africa to complete their degrees is a matter for serious concern, a study by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) has revealed. Furthermore, the substantial number of students who drop out before completion is also of great worry.

Both have financial implications for affected universities in terms of delays in government subsidies being paid out to already cash-strapped universities. In South Africa, public universities are funded on a sliding scale basis by the government, while dropouts are a drain to the economy.

The CHE, which is an independent statutory body that has, among others, a quality oversight function and advises the minister on policy matters, conducted a review of doctoral degrees offered by 23 public universities and five private institutions. Their study, titled National Review of South African Doctoral Qualifications 2020-21, was released recently.

Professor Themba Mosia, the chairman of the CHE council, explained that the “review process commenced with the development of the Qualification Standard for Doctoral Degrees by a standards development reference group of independent academic peers. The standard is the threshold, or benchmark, against which qualifications have been assessed.”

Review process

The review focused on all doctoral qualifications, whether general or professional, and whether read through thesis, publications, or creative performance. The Qualification Standard for Doctoral Degrees was the sole benchmark.

The process of the review entailed the submission of self-evaluation reports by the participating institutions in 2020 and a subsequent desktop evaluation of these by a CHE-appointed panel.

“This was later followed by a series of virtual site-based peer evaluations conducted in the period between September and November 2020,” said Mosia.

More than 4,500 participants were interviewed and this included senior management, leaders of doctoral studies, supervisors, examiners, administrative staff, support staff, students and graduates. Documents were submitted to the panel at its request.

Mosia explained: “Based on the findings and recommendations from the national review, every institution that participated … was required to submit an improvement plan to the CHE. During the period of the implementation of the plan, institutions are expected to submit periodic progress reports and the CHE will monitor the implementation of the improvement plans to their successful conclusion.”


Going back to the findings, the report states that “data gathered from one of our larger institutions indicate that, for a particular cohort of doctoral students who first registered in 2014, 19% dropped out within five years.

“For the same five-year period, another institution recorded a nominally higher dropout rate of 22%. While the percentage dropout rate fluctuates from year to year, it is, nonetheless, a high percentage, which is of concern.”

The number of students who complete their doctoral studies within the minimum period of two years is extremely small. “Far more common is for those students who actually complete their studies to do so in a considerably longer time period. This can range from three years to six years and even longer,” according to the report.

The average time for doctoral students to graduate in a particular year is a determining factor in the calculation of the subsidy formula for the size of the annual teaching input sub-block grant allocated to an institution.

“There is, therefore, some financial benefit for the institution to have doctoral students complete their theses and graduate within a reasonable time period.”

The report cautions, however, that financial incentives should not be the motivating reason for enrolling doctoral students. “Income from subsidies is unlikely to cover the resources required for doctoral programmes, and additional resources are likely to be required.”

Benefits for the timeous completion of doctoral degrees include the use of facilities which may be needed for new students, and the availability of supervisors whose time is taken up with students who are not completing in time.

In an effort to encourage completion, most institutions have placed a limit on the maximum number of years allowed for doctoral studies.

“Many institutions also build in financial penalties for those students who do not complete within a specified time period. These maximum time limits for doctoral studies vary from institution to institution: it can be as short as four years for some institutions while, for others, it may be as long as six years for full-time studies (and seven years for part-time studies),” explains the report.

The review panel indicated that, in the case of a few institutions, while there is no rule with regard to a maximum time period, it is clearly stated that the progress of each student is carefully monitored.

Factors causing completion delays

Institutional self-evaluation reports have suggested some contributing factors that may cause students to take longer than expected to complete:

• Financial support: in most cases, the financial support a student receives (in the form of a bursary) is for three years (and, as an exception, perhaps four years). When the support runs out and the student has not yet completed, he or she is often forced to take up part-time (or even full-time) employment which, in turn, results in even further delays before completion;

• The process that needs to be followed in order to obtain formal ethical clearance for a research project is often drawn-out and not well understood by students;

• Statistical and editorial support is often perceived to be inadequate and inaccessible;

• The lack of dedicated laboratory technicians to maintain key research equipment in experimental disciplines can cause delays for students; and

• The rule at some institutions that requires a student to have completed a manuscript before being allowed to submit the thesis reportedly delays students from timeous completion.

“Delays in completion can sometimes cause frustration on the part of the supervisor, who may lose interest in the student and subtly withdraw from providing appropriate guidance and supervision. Other consequences include ‘hot’ research topics dating and [that] may no longer be novel in the eyes of the supervisor or the examiner, to the potential detriment of the student,” the report points out.

Full-time or part-time?

A further issue influencing graduation and dropout rates is the fact that many doctoral students find it necessary to work part-time for financial and personal reasons, and this leads to prolonged registration times.

The Department of Higher Education and Training does not distinguish between part-time and full-time doctoral students’ registration. “This means that there is no acknowledgement of the effect on completion time for part-time students as compared with full-time students. In many universities, all doctoral candidates are, by default, registered as full-time students, with the consequences of impact on recorded completion times and subsidies.”

The report notes that, since doctoral students are senior students who have already successfully completed earlier qualifications, institutions need to consider the possible reasons for the dropout rates.

One may question, for example, whether the formal admissions criteria are adequate. These admissions criteria generally require a completed masters degree with a pass mark of at least 60%.

“However, a masters degree does not necessarily prepare a student for doctoral studies. Bearing in mind the financial incentives for institutions to increase their doctoral numbers, it is possible that some registered doctoral students should not have been accepted into a doctoral programme in the first place, as they are underprepared and may need additional support and assistance from their supervisors.”

Tackling delays

The report recommends that each institution conduct a survey to identify the primary reasons for a delay in completing doctoral studies as well as for dropouts. From this, the institution should develop plans to address the factors.

In order to reduce the drop-out rates for a doctoral programme, institutions need to ensure that doctoral applicants understand the full implications of committing to doctoral studies.

“It should be made clear that undertaking a successful doctoral project at NQF [National Qualifications Framework] level 10 is very different from having already completed a masters project (at NQF level 9), and a doctoral project is not simply a second masters project, although this may be the perception in the minds of some students.”

The South African NQF maps qualifications in the education system and provides guidelines for learner achievement. It allows national recognition of skills and knowledge levels, which provides integration that is aimed at supporting lifelong learning.

To this end, support provided to the student by the institution needs to start at the initial enquiry, by ensuring that the applicant fully appreciates the scale of the decision to enrol for doctoral studies. This same commitment from the institution to supporting the student needs to continue through the life of the project, to graduation.

The report indicates that, overall, institutions need to ensure that they have strategies and policies that include careful selection of doctoral students, implementation of supervisor-student agreements, monitoring of student progress, provision of adequate supervision, mentoring and supporting of supervisors, and appropriate management of quality before submission of theses for assessment.