SA produces fewer doctorates than a single university in Brazil

2014-04-08 16:43

South African universities produce a woefully inadequate number of doctoral graduates, Higher Education South Africa has found.

In 2010, the country produced a paltry 1 423 doctorates compared with the 2 244 PhDs churned out by the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. South Africa and Brazil are comparable economies.

These figures are contained in a presentation that Higher Education South Africa made to the portfolio committee on higher education in Parliament last month.

The presentation was aimed at briefing the committee on the successes and challenges facing higher education 20 years after democracy.

Korea and Brazil, said the presentation, produce 187 and 48 doctoral graduates respectively, for every 1 million citizens. For South Africa it is 28.

The presentation also revealed that South African academics are not adequately qualified. Only 34% of academics have doctoral degrees. This is generally a prerequisite for undertaking high-quality research and supervising doctoral students.

The research performance of universities is highly uneven, with 10 universities producing 86% of all research and 89% of all doctoral graduates.

According to the presentation: “South Africa also lacks the dense networks between universities, state and business that are found in other countries, which facilitates the movement of people, knowledge, expertise and experience between universities and the public and private sectors and innovation.”

It added that the country produces about 7 500 doctoral articles a year, which is equivalent to 0.4% of the total world science production. The presentation said it is doubtful if the number of doctoral graduates could be increased.

“Unless a number of systemic constraints such as the size of the pipeline from honours onwards and the limited supervisory capacity in the system can be addressed, and [considering] that both the volume of output and overall productivity of institutions will decline unless the academic workforce is broadened considerably to include many more black [and to a lesser extent, female] academics who publish and regenerate the workforce.”

The presentation also blamed the low number of PhD graduates on poverty.

“One significant constraint on the ability of many students to obtain masters and PhDs is poverty as poor students are under enormous pressure to leave university and get a job as soon as possible. It is recognised that overall, postgraduate provision deserves attention and that we need to drastically increase the number and quality of the masters and the PhD degrees obtained.”

The presentation endorsed the National Planning Commission’s (NPC) ideal of producing more than 5 000 PhD graduates every year by 2030.

“The NPC proposes that by 2030 over 25% of university enrolments should be at postgraduate level and emphasises that the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates should increase significantly. More specifically, by 2030, there should be more than 5 000 doctoral graduates a year and most of these doctorates should be in science, engineering, technology and mathematics.”

The presentation celebrated the fact that access to higher education, especially by black people, has increased dramatically since 1994.

However, it also stressed that throughput, dropout, undergraduate success and graduation rates all make it clear that a substantial improvement in equity of opportunity and outcomes for black students remain to be achieved.

“If universities are to contribute to a more equitable South African society, then access and success must be improved for black [and particularly black working class] students who, by virtue of their previous experiences, have not been inducted into dominant ways of constructing knowledge.

“A key argument is that the underperformance of black students will not change spontaneously. Decisive action needs to be taken in key aspects of the educational process – and at key points of the educational ‘pipeline’ – to facilitate positive change in outcomes.”

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