SA’s PhD review: Its relevance for other countries in Africa

Earlier in 2022, South Africa’s Council on Higher Education (CHE), which is responsible for the quality assurance of higher education qualifications, published a comprehensive review of doctoral education in South Africa.

The review was the culmination of a meticulous and elaborate process that started in 2017 when South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF), which provides financial support to doctoral degree programmes, invited the CHE to undertake a review of doctoral education in South African higher education institutions to ensure that they meet national quality standards.

Increasing PhD graduates

To understand the NRF’s concern, one needs to go back to 2011, when South Africa launched its National Development Plan (NDP) aiming at eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

For the NDP to achieve its objectives, it set out a series of goals for improving education and training and increasing research and innovation capacity over the next 20 years. Two of those goals relate directly to doctoral education.

First, the NDP proposed to increase university student enrolment from 950,000 in 2010 to 1.62 million in 2030, a 70% increase. This would invariably require additional academics, including those holding PhDs. In 2010, the proportion of PhD-qualified academic staff in universities was only 34%, which the NDP proposed to increase to 75% by 2030.

Secondly, noting that South Africa produced only 28 PhD graduates per million population per year, a figure considered very low by international standards, the NDP set the target of 100 by 2030. This would result in an increase in PhD graduate output per year from 1,421 in 2010 to 5,000 in 2030.

By 2017, the figures had already increased significantly. The number of PhD graduates per million of population had increased to 54; the number of doctoral graduates produced per year had more than doubled to 3,057; and the proportion of academics having a PhD had reached 46%. While the numbers were increasing, there was little information about the quality of the graduates.

Another factor that, no doubt, prompted the review was the diverse higher education landscape in South Africa, partly because of the colonial past, and partly resulting from the institutional mergers that took place at the beginning of the 21st century which aimed to redress post-apartheid legacies, but which invariably created greater diversity.

This resulted in 36 public higher education institutions being merged into initially 21, and currently 26 universities. Some of these universities are classified as traditional, others as comprehensive and yet others as universities of technology.

While the majority of them are recognised – several of them internationally – for delivering quality doctoral programmes, some were suspected of having limited capacity to do so as a result of their historical past.

The review process

The first step in the review process was establishing a quality standard specifically for doctoral degrees. The CHE is reputed for having excellent quality assurance mechanisms for accrediting both institutions and their programmes, but the latter are mainly at undergraduate level. Because of the nature of doctoral programmes, their assessment requires a completely different approach.

Accordingly, in 2017, the CHE appointed a group of academic experts with experience in supervision and assessment of doctoral studies to draft a specific standard for doctoral degrees.

The outcome was the Qualification Standard for Doctoral Degrees, published in November 2018.

It specifies standards for the whole process of doctoral studies, from entry to institutional processes to the acquisition of graduate attributes at exit. It is, perhaps, one of the first such specific standards to appear in Africa.

The next step was an assessment by the CHE of all doctoral qualifications in South Africa. In 2019, doctoral degrees were being offered by 23 of the 26 public universities and five of the private higher education institutions.

In accordance with the usual quality assurance process, these 28 institutions were first invited to submit their self-evaluation reports using the standards specified in the Qualification Standard for Doctoral Degrees for evaluation by the CHE during 2020.

Each of these reports was then reviewed by a review panel appointed by the CHE. The resulting 28 review panel reports, together with the 28 self-evaluation reports, were then examined in depth by a team of five senior academics appointed by the CHE with a view to producing a National Review of South African Doctoral Qualifications, which is the document that was finally published in March 2022.

National review report

The national review report on doctoral education is a remarkably rich document. Its objective was not to assess the quality of the various doctoral programmes – that would be done by the CHE on the basis of the respective review panel reports – but rather to take a holistic view of the entire landscape of doctoral education in South Africa.

Without referring to any specific programme or institution, the report clinically examines the whole process of doctoral studies in the 28 institutions, covering issues related to admission of students, their supervision, assessment, graduation rate, funding, and so on.

The last three sections (nine to 11) of the report are particularly illuminating. Section 9 highlights examples of good practice; Section 10 exposes areas of significant concern that need to be redressed; and Section 11 makes recommendations to both institutions and the higher education sector.

What clearly emerges from the report is that, although South Africa has a relatively small higher education sector, there are significant variations in the policies and procedures relevant to doctoral studies among the various institutions, be they in admission of students, their supervision or examination, or in the institutional administrative structures dealing with doctoral studies.

Without identifying them, the report does mention that there are institutions whose doctoral qualifications currently do not meet the Qualification Standard for Doctoral Degrees.

Relevance to other countries in Africa?

While going through the report, one cannot help comparing the South African situation with regard to doctoral education with what prevails in other African countries, especially the anglophone ones which have doctoral studies approaches that are very similar to that in South Africa.

Like South Africa, most of these countries have higher education institutions which are diverse, ranging from some having been set up soon after independence and being well-established, to others having been established barely a decade ago and still undergoing development, to polytechnics which have been upgraded to university status.

Other African countries also face the same two challenges as those in South Africa: having to increase their higher education student enrolment, and hence the proportion of their academic staff having a PhD, and increasing the output of PhDs in appropriate fields in order to boost research and innovation.

Over the past decade, there has been a very significant increase in doctoral enrolment in many African universities, in most cases through initiatives funded by development partners and funding agencies.

But the universities do not necessarily have the capacity to accommodate such increases and the threat to the quality of their doctoral degrees is real.

As pointed out in the South African report, the quality of doctoral education is of critical importance, not only to the national quality assurance agency, but also to the public, the awarding institutions and the students. One could further add to the employers of the doctorates, the whole higher education sector and the development of the country.

Almost all the quality issues addressed in the South African review report are pertinent to other African universities and countries which are currently dealing with the challenge of increasing their doctoral offering.

And yet, none of the quality assurance agencies in these countries has developed a specific quality assurance standard for doctoral degrees and most of them do not have the capacity for developing such a standard.

It should be possible for them to use the South African standard as a framework for developing their own. Similarly, the review report is a very useful document and universities in other African countries should be in a position to use it as a guide to assess the shortcomings and lacunae of their doctoral education and benefit from its numerous and invaluable suggestions and recommendations.

The South African CHE should be commended for having taken on and successfully completed the complex process of assuring quality of doctoral degrees.

With its experience and expertise, the CHE should now consider assisting other interested African countries and their universities in addressing the challenges of providing quality doctoral education, and this for the benefit of the whole African continent.

This commentary was written by Goolam Mohamedbhai, the former secretary general of the Association of African Universities, former president of the International Association of Universities and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is a former member of the governing council of the United Nations University and is a board member of University World News – Africa.