SA needs a serious rethink of postgraduate study if it is to address the declining uptake – especially in local students

13-10-23 USAf 0 comment

Fewer and fewer South Africans are undertaking postgraduate studies. A national review of South African doctoral qualifications between 2020 and 2021 revealed that 56.7% of PhD graduates are international students and 43.3% South African. This contrasts with undergraduate demographics where 96.9% of the graduates are South African and 3.1% are foreign.

“It’s quite stark,” said Dr Whitty Green (right), CEO of the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The international component is largely students from elsewhere on the African continent and while it was very important for the country to be supporting Africa’s capacity development, “we have to be thinking about the implications for South Africa. And how do we increase participation of South African students?

Dr Green was speaking during a session on Student Mobility – Rethinking student mobility nationally and internationally at the Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) 7th Biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue, which took place in Umhlanga last month.  The Dialogue is an initiative of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group. 

He said there had been claims and accusations of foreign students pushing out South African students, but a recent study at the CHE debunked that. “It’s about the incapacity of our system to progress the pipeline, and to support South African students to move along this pipeline. That’s where the real issue is,“ he said.

“Mobility along that pipeline is critical if we’re going to succeed in contributing to the development of our economy, of society, of our citizenry, through our postgraduate studies. And we have a leaking pipeline. Many of our students don’t make it into postgraduate studies. Of those that do, many don’t finish their postgraduate studies or take too long to complete them. And very few move into academia,” he said.

“We start off with something in the region of 1.1 million undergraduate students. That was the count in 2021. At the doctoral level, there are 25 000. If you look at the postgraduate component, it’s a 15.2% cohort of our enrollments in higher education.” Although some universities are aiming for 25% participation in postgraduate studies, they were nowhere near that yet, he said.

The CHE’s new study on postgraduate trends  

Dr Green was drawing on data that the CHE collects to compile its annual Vital Stats publication on public and private higher education data, on trends observed during the national review of doctoral degrees and the resulting Doctoral Degrees National Report, released in March 2022. He used the opportunity to elaborate further by revealing information from a more recent study the CHE had commissioned, which is “on the changing trends in the size and shape of postgraduate programmes in the higher education system in South Africa, 2005 – 2020, and that will come out quite soon”.

He said the various data sources showed how a range of issues were causing a leaking postgraduate pipeline, such as funding and supervision challenges, student unpreparedness, and a dearth of postgraduate support programmes and facilities.

Mobility needs to be funded

Dr Green said a decrease in National Research Foundation (NRF) bursaries has meant fewer students could be supported. 

There also needed to be a greater awareness that funding for students is much more than just fees. Forexample, they also needed funds for technology, fieldwork, and living expenses. The amounts allocated for bursaries “don’t serve the needs of South African students fully and this is one of the reasons we are not getting sufficient uptake of South African students in our doctoral programmes,“ he said.

If mobility through the postgraduate pathway is important for South Africa, , then this kind of mobility needs to be funded, he said. 

Another funding-related problem is that limited numbers of postgraduates in South Africa study full time. This impacts on completion and dropout rates and “creates a clogging of the pipeline at doctoral level, because students are taking much more time to move through,” he said. And it ends up impacting on supervisory capacity.

“There is inadequate capacity around supervision, both in terms of quality and in terms of quantity,” said Green. That is, not only were there not enough supervisors but many of the existing ones needed development. In the context of promoting mobility, there is a need to consider tapping into more collaborative, rather than one-on-one, supervision models. He said a recent CHE publication looked at these different options of postgraduate supervision.

SA needs a national review of masters programmes

Students entering doctoral studies appeared to be underprepared, said Dr Green, “which then talks to the pipeline below – the masters and the honours and even undergraduates, and how we start to build up attributes to support success at doctoral level. So, we need to ask serious questions around the master’s programmes in the country as well,” he said, suggesting a collaborative exercise. 

There was a dearth of programmes or facilities to support doctoral students. While some institutions were supportive, others were leaving their doctoral students to sink or swim, he said.

He also raised the question of professional doctorates, which recognise work experience and focus on practical application in professional settings. Only two were accredited in South Africa, “and I think we need to engage the question ‘why?,” he said.

CHE’s impending advice to the Minister 

He said that the doctoral review exercise had helped hone the CHE’s attention on the need to think about mobility not only in terms of international mobility but also mobility through the pipeline. The doctoral review showed that in additional to institutional interventions, interventions were also at the national, systemic level. The CHE is drawing on the doctoral review to compile advice to the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, on national initiatives that South Africa needed. These included:

  • A nationally funded programme for the development of postgraduate supervisory capacity, perhaps to be driven through USAf’s Community of Practice for Postgraduate Research and Scholarship, headed by Professor Stephanie Burton of the University of Pretoria, who was chairing the Student Mobility session of the R&I Dialogue; and
  • Establishing postgraduate centres at universities, perhaps funded by the Department of Science and Innovation and the NRF.


Question 1: Dr Aldo Stroebel (right), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) Research, Innovation and Internationalisation, University of Mpumalanga: “Apart from us as a collective speaking about the challenges, is it really necessary to have this national approach? My call is for universities to be much stronger in taking responsibility.  I’m not sure whether the inertia of this collective approach will take us forward as fast as we need to be.”

Response 1: Dr Green: I certainly agree with you. I don’t think it’s an ‘either or’. My gut feel is we need these initiatives at all levels, from the individual right up to the national. We need the individual universities to take responsibility and, certainly, from a doctoral review, that has been part of the process. We have these individual improvement plans that each university had to submit. We need regional initiatives that allow collectives of universities to act, and then we need the national. So, I think we need all of them. Inertia can be at the individual level as well.  But I also see the point that you can be stuck at the national level, trying to pull everyone along.”

Response 2: Professor Jesika Singh, DVC Research, Innovation and Partnerships, University of Limpopo: “I think the idea behind student mobility from a national point of view, where we come up with something and then the sector uses it, is because we want it to be for everybody, to be something that is available and open to all students.”

Question 2: Dr Ndumiso Cingo (left), Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR: “Is theslow uptake of the professional doctoral degree in South African universities perhaps an element of a reflection of the lack of integration and collaboration within the system? Because a professional degree of that nature would need input from the more applied side of things. So, science councils could potentially be partners with universities in developing such degrees, and industry as well, and therefore ultimately lead to more impact in terms of students applying the knowledge they gain.”

Response 1: Dr Green: “The professional doctorate really does provide the space for universities to move beyond their own borders and their own boundaries, to engage with other key role players in the sector, like industry, like science councils, and in so doing, open up opportunities for doctoral students to grapple with other forms of knowledge within the discipline beyond just the theoretical.” 

Response 2: Professor Stephanie Burton (right), USAf Research Fellow and a biochemistry professor at the University of Pretoria and a faculty fellow at its Future Africa campus, who wrote the national doctoral report: “Hardly any of our universities are considering a professional doctorate. One reason is that internationally it has credit-bearing coursework, and our Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF) does not allow for that in a doctoral degree. So, if we want professional doctorates, we are going to have to change the national system. And that’s going to take some collective effort and some consideration of those regulations. That’s one of the reasons for the slow uptake. Universities are not putting in professional doctorates because they can’t get them accredited if they want to give credit to the training part of it. Also, our national system requires doctoral students to have a master’s degree.  That is not the international law. So, we would then be asking our students to do a master’s degree, and then some more coursework in their PhD. There’s room for thinking about that. I think professional doctorates might well be a useful alternative and something attractive to students.”

Comment: Professor Dina Burger, Director: Research, Cape Peninsula University of Technology: “Since the doctoral review we went through a few years ago, we have seen many technological advances in the world. Perhaps we must start to revise those graduate attributes again. Otherwise, we are going to fall behind and on the receiving end of that, is our students and our economy. I advocate we need to look at that again.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer at Universities South Africa.