NRF Policy for Postgraduate Student Funding: Enhancing Equity of Postgraduate Student Access, Success and Throughput

24-07-19 USAf 0 comment

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has developed a new Postgraduate Student Funding Policy that will use postgraduate student funding as a lever to address the challenges of inequity of access, success and throughput. The policy is underpinned by the pursuit of research excellence in all of its dimensions and has transformation of the postgraduate cohort as the core objective.

The purpose is to retain high academic achievers in the system to pursue postgraduate studies up to the doctoral level, as part of a national drive to grow the next generation of academics to sustain South Africa’s knowledge enterprise. The NRF is prioritising postgraduate students with research inclination, with the aim to grow the pool of early career researchers and achieve at least 1% of the global research development output in the next few years. Another motivation for this policy is to fast-track the development of postgraduate students in high-impact, priority and vulnerable disciplines critical for national socio-economic development.

Postgraduate students will be funded either at Full Cost of Study (FCS) or Partial Cost of Study (PCS) under the new policy. To ensure equity of access to postgraduate studies, financially needy students (i.e., those whose combined household income is R350 000 per annum or less) and students with a disability will be funded at FCS. Academic high fliers achieving a distinction or first-class pass will also be eligible for funding at FCS.

On 20 June, the NRF Chief Executive Officer, Dr Molapo Qhobela, attended the Universities SA (USAf) Board’s ordinary meeting by special invitation, to present this new policy that will be implemented from 2021. Dr Qhobela explained how this bursary would work and created awareness to vice-chancellors, of the role that universities would play in the processing of applications.

We are looking at funding around 8 000 students when the Full Cost of Study funding is implemented in 2021,” the NRF CEO (left) told the gathering of vice-chancellors. Next to him is the USAf Chairperson, Professor Thandwa Mthembu.

Dr Qhobela mentioned two sets of criteria that students will be required to meet to qualify for postgraduate student funding. Of the total number of bursaries available, 95% will go to SA citizens and permanent residents; 5% will be made available to students from the SADC countries and the rest of the world. The deciding factor in the latter will be alignment to the African continental development agenda and countries with which SA has bi- and multi-lateral agreements. At least 55% of the bursaries will go to female candidates.

In addition to meeting the university entry requirements, students must achieve the minimum academic requirements to be eligible for NRF postgraduate funding. In order to encourage students to complete their doctoral studies by their mid-thirties, NRF funded postgraduate students that complete their degree within the NRF funding period will be funded without interruption from the honours up to the doctoral level.

The table below breaks down the criteria further.

Post-graduate study pipeline funding without interruption
Full Cost of Study (FCS) (covering tuition, accommodation, living, meals and electronic study device allowances) (For SA citizens and Permanent Residents) Partial Cost of Study (FCS) (covering tuition and accommodation costs) (For SA citizens, Permanent Residents and 5% non-SA citizens)
Exceptional academic achievers Financially needy and students with disability Other
Honours Funding Period: One year
75% mark in final year of undergraduate study 65% mark in final year of undergraduate study 65% mark in final year of undergraduate study
Masters Funding Period: Two years
75% mark in honours or final year of a four-year undergraduate degree 65% mark in honours or final year of a four-year undergraduate degree 65% mark in honours or final year of a four-year undergraduate degree
Doctoral Funding Period: Three years
75% mark for masters degree 65% mark for masters degree 65% mark for masters degree

Dr Qhobela further mentioned that conditions had been set for students to complete their honours in one year, their masters in two years and doctoral studies in three years. In order to lower the age of completion of doctoral studies to 35, the NRF had set an age limit for funding eligibility per level. For example, a candidate would need to be at most 28 years of age at time of application, to be considered for honours; 30 years of age for masters and 32 years of age for doctoral studies.

Due to the NRF prioritising research-inclined postgraduate training, the new funding policy will exclude:

  • Undergraduate qualifications, regardless of the NQF exit level;
  • Post-graduate certificates or diplomas, regardless of NQF exit level;
  • Masters by coursework only; and
  • Professional masters and doctoral degrees.

With the current budget of R1 billion, the NRF is able to fund just over 11 000 postgraduate students. The NRF is looking at funding around 8 000 students when the FCS funding is implemented in 2021.

To identify financially needy students, the NRF has entered into a partnership agreement with the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP), for undertaking of a Household Means Test. Through this partnership, ISFAP will raise funding from the private sector for postgraduate student support and will be co-funding postgraduate students with the NRF to increase the overall number of students that may be funded.

At the time of the presentation to the USAf Board, the NRF had been to 20 public universities sensitising them to this development, and to also alert them to the role they would play in the application process and in managing postgraduate student support for improved success and throughput. The call for applications for postgraduate funding for the 2021 academic year, will be made in April 2020, with the intent to inform all honours, masters and doctoral applicants of the outcome of their funding application by 23 December 2020.

Responses from Board members

Board members widely commended this initiative, even though they expressed reservations on:

  1. The low numbers set to benefit from the bursary scheme
  2. The NRF accommodating a two-year Masters when universities are debating reducing the duration of the Masters programme to one year, and
  3. Exclusion of students in employment, who are underemployed and could make excellent candidates for this opportunity.

With a view to accommodating larger numbers, a proposal was made to the NRF to approach Business Leadership South Africa to request their top 15 members to consider re-channelling some of their Corporate Social Investment funds to the NRF pool. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation was another entity to approach in this regard. Dr Qhobela’s response was that they were open to exploring all options, including engaging the business sector to explore partnerships in this regard.

On the two-year masters, Dr Molapo said the NRF was more concerned about substance (quality) than chasing numbers.  “If you put a case forward and we reach an agreement with the Council on Higher Education, we’re open to reviewing our policy in this regard.”

While there was no further engagement on the exclusion of students in employment, the USAf Chair suggested that this matter be added to the agenda of the Board’s envisaged engagement with Dr Blade Nzimande in due course. Professor Mthembu added that even though universities may not contribute monetarily to the initiative, ideas they do have, for strengthening this initiative. 

Ideas are welcome on the combined Higher Education and Science and Technology departments

Dr Molapo also used this platform to mention the merger of the two former departments of Higher Education and Training, and Science and Technology. “We assume that merging the two departments is part of re-imagining the knowledge system,” Dr Molapo stated. “We could therefore use ideas from this forum about how to strategise for that combined department.” This invitation was fully embraced and vice-chancellors promised to take Dr Molapo up on that invitation. Suggestions would duly be channelled to Minister Blade Nzimande in due course.     On that note, this discussion was concluded.