SA's doctoral dilemma

2014-10-19 15:01

South African universities produce a woefully inadequate number of doctorates and are unlikely to meet the National Development Plan’s target of producing 5?000 PhDs by 2030, academics have said.

A snap City Press survey revealed that in 2013 our universities produced just over 1?800 doctorates.

Wits University’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Adam Habib said: “[To meet the National Development Plan target, universities] will have to fundamentally change the way they do things.”

A study conducted by the Academy of Science for SA in 2010 showed PhD production had climbed in the past 20 years. In 1996, local universities produced only 685 PhD graduates. By 2010 the figure had more than doubled to 1?421.

But that growth still leaves us far behind other countries like Brazil, whose University of Sao Paulo alone produced 2?244 PhDs in 2010.

South Africa and Brazil are at similar stages of development.

Habib said the increase South Africa had recorded in the past two decades was “glaringly insufficient” for a 21st-century, knowledge-based economy.

The Academy of Science’s report revealed that South Africa currently produces between 23 and 27 PhDs per 1 million people each year.

Brazil produces 52.

“The PhD is arguably the key qualification defining the quality research standards of a country, and is particularly acknowledged as a means for acquiring, generating and using research-based knowledge,” it said in the report.

“New knowledge generated via doctoral education is widely acknowledged as an important strategic and economic resource.”

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, chief executive of the National Research Foundation, said it would be “very difficult” to achieve the National Development Plan targets and would take “a special effort”.

Van Jaarsveld, who takes over as principal of the University of KwaZulu-Natal next year, said more bursaries should be made available for master’s and doctoral candidates. “At the National Research Foundation, we have been pushing for the upskilling of lecturers themselves, including sabbaticals for lecturers to complete PhDs.”

The production of PhDs, he said, was hindered by the fact that only 37% of academic staff in universities held doctorates themselves.

“It would help a great deal if about 60% of lecturers and academic staff had PhDs,” he said.

Lecturers can’t supervise PhD students unless they hold a doctorate themselves, said Van Jaarsveld – so it would be pointless to increase the number of PhD candidates if there aren’t enough supervisors.

Dr Nelleke Bak, director of postgraduate studies at the University of Cape Town, said the National Research Foundation target would be “difficult to realise without an increase in resources, alternative models of supervision and appropriately qualified academics to support this ambitious goal”.

The executive director of the Human Sciences Research Council’s education and skills development research programme, Dr Vijay Reddy, said the area of study for PhD candidates was particularly important.

The 2010 study reported that: “Engineering, materials and technologies consistently produced the smallest share of the graduates. In 2007, the headcount figure for social sciences (437) was almost five times that for engineering, materials and technologies (92).

“As South Africa embarks on various industrialisation strategies and government growth strategies to lift and expand the economy, it is important that the areas of study of the doctoral graduates respond to the needs of the economy and the society.”

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