Oral exams should be part of doctoral programmes – Study

Several key factors are driving the shifts taking place in doctoral education globally, including digitalisation, globalisation and the knowledge economy. While each of these drivers permeates the South African higher education context to some extent, the country’s own complex historical legacies provide a unique background and lens through which the drivers of doctoral education can be framed.

In a recent article, we discuss the complex legacy of apartheid and some of its implications for the country’s doctoral education transformation agenda. We use this to frame the recommendations from a 2020-21 review of doctoral programmes in South Africa (see Council on Higher Education’s National Review of South African Doctoral Qualifications in South Africa).

Dealing with legacies

In an attempt to overcome the economic, academic, racial and ethnic segregation of the apartheid era, South Africa introduced a complex set of government policies to widen access to university education for previously marginalised groups. At doctoral level, this has included changes in recruitment and admissions policies, with an increasing number of first-generation students embarking on their doctoral studies.

With public funding of tertiary institutions steadily decreasing over the past decade, universities have had to increasingly rely on student fees for their income, and these first-generation students (who are mostly from low-income homes) struggle to source government grants and bursaries to complete their doctoral studies.

Additionally, many prospective doctoral students are under-prepared or ‘differently prepared’ for senior-degree studies and, thus, many students who were supposed to benefit the most from positive changes in recruitment policies have been the most negatively affected. They often carry the burden of advancing their families financially while, at the same time, paying back exorbitant study loans.

In addition, there is an influx of international doctoral candidates – most of them from other African countries – which currently exceeds 40% of all postgraduate enrolments in public universities and puts further strain on the doctoral system.

Transformational challenges

As early as 2012, the South African National Development Plan (NDP), now largely defunct, identified information and knowledge as the main drivers for the country’s economic growth, with universities central to achieving this growth.

South African universities have responded positively to the NDP’s target of 5,000 doctoral graduates per year by 2030, and are well on their way to achieving this, but a call to increase the percentage of academic staff with PhDs from 34% in 2012 to 75% by 2030 seems some way off. At many universities, especially at universities of technology, this figure remains below 50%.

What is more disturbing, however, is the issue of doctoral quality. For instance, while there has been a surge in the demand for postgraduate supervision training and many universities were setting up in-house programmes, the supervision load of doctoral supervisors has increased exponentially, especially for experienced doctoral supervisors.

The quality of doctoral examinations and examination procedures are also concerning, since most South African universities rely only on written texts and have not taken doctoral oral examinations on board.

Quality under scrutiny

Against this background, the National Review (NR) of doctoral programmes took place between 2020 and 2021 with two main purposes: Firstly, to enable institutions to evaluate their quality assurance arrangements for the provisioning of doctoral programmes against a set national benchmark standard and, secondly, to publish an evaluation report on the national state of doctoral provisioning in South Africa.

Institutional contexts were deemed as of major significance insofar as they create the environment for improving and maintaining the quality of doctoral studies.

While the NR was conducted under COVID-19 lockdown regulations, creating logistical and other challenges, it adhered to pre-arranged schedules, ensuring that the shift from the originally planned physical to virtual site visits did not compromise the integrity of the process.

The final NR report offers several recommendations with the potential of becoming a key driver in advancing the general quality of South African doctoral programmes and qualifications.

From a total of 23 recommendations, 18 are directed at institutions that offer doctoral programmes and five at the higher education sector in general. Institutional-level recommendations include issues such as building supervisory capacity, decreasing doctoral completion times, promoting the achievement of doctoral attributes, assessing doctoral outcomes, and coordinating institutional units and administration dealing with doctoral education.

Systemic issues include considering the socio-economic challenges of doctoral candidates, co-ordinating the development of supervisory capacity, setting and adhering to programme standards and ensuring student preparedness for undertaking doctoral work.

Promoting doctoral education

As doctoral programme improvement plans and their monitoring in South Africa continue, we suggest at least five points to consider regarding a possible current and future agenda for promoting doctoral education as well as research related to it.

Firstly, policies and practices should be developed that enhance the attainment of doctoral attributes as highlighted by the NR. Identifying and attaining doctoral attributes across the South African higher education system is considered essential for quality promotion in doctoral studies.

All universities in the country thus need to look more seriously into how such attributes can be incorporated into all doctoral education offerings. A lack of such efforts will increasingly place question marks on doctoral support, the quality of doctoral examinations and the long-term impact of doctoral degrees.

Secondly, promoting the capacity and provision of doctoral supervision is key to an improved and sustainable South African doctoral education system, but also of international concern. In view of the rapid increase in doctoral graduations within the next 10 years, enough qualified and experienced supervisors are essential.

Academic staff with doctoral qualifications, proper induction into doctoral supervision and exposure to supervisory experience all seem to have a key role to play here.

Thirdly, the proper funding of doctoral education seems essential for the much-needed expansion of the numbers and quality of doctoral graduates and supervisors. We, thus, argue that grants for doctoral studies, and institutional and external funding opportunities should be available and known to potential doctoral candidates. This also includes proper funding for the development of doctoral supervision.

But we caution against promoting the number of doctorates for the mere sake of having them and the university subsidy they generate. At a supervision workshop recently, several postdoctoral participants referred to unmet promises of employment upon graduation.

Together with a high unemployment rate in South Africa (officially above 30%), the cost of doctoral education, the availability of research positions, and the plight of qualifying and qualified doctoral graduates, in general, should be seriously monitored.

Fourthly, given the country’s apartheid legacy, together with current negligence, equity and redress in doctoral study opportunities, especially regarding inequalities and wasted opportunities of the past, should remain a priority. Historically, many South Africans have been and are still denied quality university education and many have become late entrants into research and doctoral studies.

We, thus, suggest universities and national higher education authorities pay special attention to this issue by providing and promoting late career opportunities, proper support, and enculturation into doctoral and postdoctoral provision.

Lastly, since the quality of South African doctoral degrees is non-negotiable, proper monitoring, assessment, and examination of PhD work should be an inseparable and ongoing part of doctoral quality at all universities. Such measures must also include that all universities make oral examinations part and parcel of their doctoral programmes.

Since issues related to ethics, authentication, fraud, and nepotism have also appeared in higher education research degrees, appropriate measures and preventative training should be introduced to root out those issues that may potentially compromise the guaranteed quality of South African doctoral qualifications.

Dr Nompilo Tshuma and Professor Eli Bitzer are affiliated with the Centre for Higher and Adult Education in the department of curriculum studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. This is an abridged version of their paper ‘Complex legacies and future prospects: Conceptualising changes in South African doctoral education’, published on 21 August 2023 in the journal Innovations in Education and Teaching International.