Reaching 75% PhD target by 2030 is unlikely, researchers say

At the current rate of growth, the South African higher education sector is highly unlikely to achieve its target of 75% of scholars across all 26 public universities having a PhD by 2030, say scientometric researchers.

Although some fields, such as astronomy and astrophysics, chemistry and physics, botany, biotechnology, zoology or animal biology, biochemistry and genetics in life sciences, have already surpassed the 75% target, other disciplines are lagging behind.

The benchmark was set in 2011 by South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), through the National Research Foundation (NRF), which provides financial support to doctoral degree programmes, when South Africa launched its National Development Plan (NDP) aiming at eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

The NDP set out a series of goals, two of which relate directly to doctoral education, for improving education and training and increasing research and innovation capacity over the next 20 years.

“This is already clear when we look at the historical trend over time where the percentage of permanent academic doctorate staff has been stagnating at around 48% for the past five years,” Dr Milandré van Lill, a senior researcher at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) and the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Scientometrics and STI Policy (SciSTIP) and Professor Johann Mouton, director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Scientometrics and STI Policy, told University World News recently after the publication of one of their SciSTIP information bulletins.

To reach this conclusion, Van Lill and Mouton analysed the 2022 Higher Education Management Information System (HEMIS) data. The draft Decadal Plan (DSI 2022) has, however, adjusted the target to accommodate institutional differences and set a target of 40% of academic staff to hold doctorates at universities of technology.

Are the targets too ambitious?

Universities of technology typically have more offerings in the applied and professional fields. Even the adjusted target for these universities may be ambitious unless serious investments are made to incentivise academics to improve their qualifications, say Van Lill and Mouton.

“The issue is not what disciplines should or could do to achieve the target, but rather that an overall target of 75% across all disciplines is inappropriate. There are large differences across disciplines with reference to the nature of the disciplines (how knowledge is generated) but also in terms of how graduates are absorbed in the labour market,” they said.

Some disciplines, such as astronomy and astrophysics, chemistry and physics, botany, biotechnology, zoology or animal biology, biochemistry and genetics in life sciences, have already surpassed the 75% target.

“The fields which have met the ‘target’ did not do anything more than any other disciplines,” Van Lill and Mouton explained. “Rather, these outcomes are related to the nature of these fields (as basic scientific disciplines) and also – by implication – the nature of the labour markets for students in these fields.

“Disciplines in the natural sciences, such as those listed, are basic, fundamental sciences where we often see a direct pipeline of students progressing directly from undergraduate studies to postgraduate studies to the PhD.

“A PhD is a near pre-requisite to find employment in these fields, even outside of academia. In addition, these fields are also highly competitive fields where there are fewer employment opportunities.

“The main reason for this is the fact that South African science has, over the recent past, been shrinking in terms of available careers which, in turn, is the result of declining investment in research and development.”

When the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the organisation responsible for measuring public and private research and development expenditure in five sectors since 2000-01 released its analysis for 2020-21 earlier this year, they said, R&D activity, measured by the expenditure on R&D, has been in decline in the business sector for more than a decade.

“This is not the case in the ‘professional fields’ such as law, financial management, engineering, computer science, clinical psychology and social work ... where a masters degree is more than sufficient to find employment.

“Often a doctoral qualification is seen as superfluous. Professional fields such as business studies, which include accounting and taxation, are not fundamental research fields and only small numbers of graduates have a PhD,” the experts said.

There are also discipline-specific qualifications in the business sciences (such as an MBA or MFA) which are more appropriate to these fields. You would then find that, in these fields, academic staff are practitioners who have moved to the higher education sector and would then pursue a PhD while employed at the university.

PhDs in agricultural sciences, health sciences, business and management sciences were noted as not lagging behind those who have achieved the target in achieving set targets, but rather that, in fields such as the health sciences, you find very small percentages of graduates with a PhD, as students typically leave the academic pipeline with an MMed.

“As far as the agricultural sciences are concerned, there are large differences across the sub-fields (for example between veterinary sciences and plant sciences) which are also related to differences in the demand from the labour market,” Van Lill and Mouton said.

In 2022, Puleng Motshoane, an academic developer at the University of Johannesburg wrote that there were gaps in the system to train doctoral researchers.

After investigating 20 of South Africa’s public universities, she saw that support for emerging supervisors for PhD was lacking, supervisors are often assigned to the role without development or support and, where professional development was available, the facilitators had no supervision experience.

The South African Council on Higher Education had, earlier in 2022, released a report highlighting the need for additional supervisory capacity across the national system, and programmes for training supervisors in most universities.

Possible direction

Universities and their faculties and departments can use the latest SciSTIP analysis by appreciating that there are significant differences in the profiles of academic disciplines in terms of their intellectual and theoretical structures, their organisational or institutional forms, their subject matter as well as their responses to market demands.

“Our data show that these differences are not insignificant when looking at the profile of the practitioners within these disciplines. Universities and policymakers should be cognisant of these differences in setting targets … or performance evaluation criteria as faculties are not homogenous in their programme or discipline offerings,” the researchers say, adding it is now commonplace that universities at all levels (from the corporate to the faculty and departmental levels) see it as a major goal to ensure that as many of their staff achieve the highest academic qualification, such as a doctoral degree.

However, it is imperative that this goal is not applied mechanistically across scientific disciplines.

The requirement of a PhD for a staff member in physics or philosophy would be appropriate. However, it is not obvious that this requirement must also apply in the same way to academic staff in the performing arts or accountancy departments.

“The information included in our SciByte [bulletin] is exactly aimed at assisting managers at universities to make better and informed decisions when setting this target as part of their strategic planning and performance appraisal activities,” the experts said.