Underfunding is a threat to Postgraduate studies

15-06-21 USAf 0 comment

The CoVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already challenging higher education funding landscape in South Africa, so say Professor Fulufhelo Nelwamondo (below left), National Research Foundation’s new CEO and Professor Anastassious Pouris from the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology.  

Both academics were speaking at the 6th Research and Innovation Dialogue, hosted by University South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG). The virtual conference, attended by academics, researchers and policy makers, was themed: Research and Innovation in the Post-CoVID period.

Addressing the topic: Implementation of the DSI-NRF Postgraduate Funding Policy, Professor Nelwamondo (who was introduced by USAf’s CEO, Professor Ahmed Bawa, as “a champion of this new technology moment and its potential to address the big challenges we face”), spoke of a dire funding shortage for postgraduate study in South Africa.

“Last year, the NRF had a huge funding cut of R763-million. Despite this budget slash, we have still had to deliver on our mandate.” He added that it was no surprise that the impact of the new DSI-NRF Postgraduate Funding Policy had resulted in a significant decrease in the number of students funded. 

“These are the realities we face as a nation; as a funding agency and society. How do we respond to these challenges in terms of funding? How do we ensure that research becomes sustainable, going forward? We need a new way of doing things; it’s not business as usual. We have to approach the problem differently,” the NRF CEO said.

Key to the NRF mandate is to contribute to national development by supporting, promoting and advancing research and human capacity development.  “Our main task is to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development,” Professor Nelwamondo said.

Speaking in more general terms about university funding – to his presentation topic CoVID-19 — The Future of Research Funding – Professor Pouris, who is also the Managing Director of the consulting entity: Quantitative Evidence Research, told of the grim outlook for all important research publications. He said the number of research publications published between 2018 and 2020 had dropped from 682 to 579.

“Last year, 2020, will show the decline is real in the total number of publications. Recent statistics show that for the first time, South Africa has been superseded by other African countries regarding the number of publications put out. Egypt has bypassed us!”

Government spending should prioritise science and technology – Pouris urged

Professor Pouris said this downward trend is troubling. “Government has not accepted that science and technology is the primary force for economic development. We should cut down on every other objective in order to support science and technology.” He gave as an example the decision taken in the 1970s by the Chinese government to make science and technology a priority. “We have all seen how that country has reaped the benefits of that decision.”  

He quoted from an NRF document: “investment in research infrastructure is only possible in alternate years due to financial constraints. This has resulted in users of the funded equipment declining from 2996 in 2018/19 to 2234 in 2019/2020.”

Professor Nelwamondo said the NRF’s mandate was to support and maintain national research facilities while promoting public awareness of, and engagement with science. He described how the kernel of the idea for a new Postgraduate Funding Policy began in 2016 and came to fruition with board approval in March 2019.

When the pandemic started – and the first call for applicants was made – in May 2020, the Minister of Science and Innovation endorsed the policy.  The name was changed to the DSI-NRF policy.  

In December 2020, the first cohort of masters and doctoral awards to be funded under the new policy was approved with funding of honours awards following in March this year. Said Professor Nelwamondo: “Some of the challenges this policy hoped to address included the low progression rate from honours to masters and onto doctoral studies. Another was the long time to completion and advanced age. Then there was the issue of transformation and of the bursary values that are not comprehensive. This is limited to how much funding we have and goes back to the R763-m cut in our budget.”

It goes without saying that South Africa needs a big cohort of researchers. To this end, the NRF has committed to putting in place strategic interventions to fund financially needy students, without interruption, up to doctoral level.

There is a list of NRF funding policies:

  • Full time studies are prioritised.
  • Doctoral completion must happen by age 35.
  • NSFAS-funded graduates are a priority.
  • 95% of allocations must be South African or permanent residents.
  • 90% of funding must go to black South Africans.
  • 55% of funds are to be allocated to women.
  • The financially needy, those with a disability and exceptional academic achievers would be funded at Full Cost of Study (FCS). Everyone else would be funded at Partial Cost (PCS).

NRF response to CoVID and national lockdown

Professor Nelwamondo said that despite everything that was happening, they had to meet the demands of the NRF mandate.  “The students were not responsible for these challenges.  At the same time, there was limited funding – due to the budget cut.”

And so, a host of measures were put in place:

  • Zero rating the online submission system
  • Extending postgraduate call times and submission of Condition of Grant deadlines
  • Allowing students to carry forward their grants into the 2021 academic year
  • Carrying the cost of registration for virtual conferences and workshops
  • Allowing researchers to cover data costs for themselves and their postgrad students from research grants
  • Encouraging masters and doctoral students to apply for extension support for the completion of their studies.

But these efforts have not alleviated the postgraduate funding pain. Of 6524 Honours applications received, 2698 (41%) were funded. With regard to extensions for the completion of Masters degrees, of 1 555 applications, 848 (54%) were approved. At doctoral level, 239 (67%) of the 356 applications received were approved.

Some of NRF statistics: At honours level 62% (FCS) 38% (PCS). At Masters level 58% (FCS) 42% (PCS). At Doctoral level 68% (FCS) 32% (PCS).  “Of course this has a bearing on the number of students the NRF can support. If you have large numbers needing full support, you have to limit numbers as affordability becomes an issue.”

Worrying, he said, was the demand for extension support in masters and doctoral studies, which seems to be on the rise. The number of fundable students were 249 in 2019; 371 in 2020 and 570 in 2021. DSI made available R9-million towards extension support for postgraduate students. “It’s a small figure but can help in ensuring students could complete their studies. At least 80% of extension support applications have been approved.”

Challenges and Constraints

One of the biggest challenges, the NRF CEO said, was that the strategy to raise private sector funding has been affected by the pandemic.  However, DSI had been approached to provide additional funding. The NRF has asked that unused funds from the 2020/21 financial year be re-purposed to support eligible postgraduate students.

In May 2021, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee (PPC) on Higher Education, Science and Technology (HEST) was approached, outlining the funding shortfall for postgraduate student funding for the 2021 academic year.  An additional R764-m is needed to support 5 554 students: 3797 honours, masters, doctoral students at FCS and 1757 at PCS. 

In his presentation on The Future of Research Funding, Professor Anastassious Pouris (right) echoed this urgent need for funding. He paints a grim picture of how we are falling short of our own set targets.

The 2008-2018 decadal innovation plan set a target, to be reached in 2018, where Science and Engineering graduates would make up 35% of the total student population. This plan hoped that South Africa would contribute a 1% share to world science publications. Regarding the Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD), the decadal plan estimated that it would amount to 1,5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). None of these targets were met.

However, Professor Pouris mentioned the targets that were met: 20 000 more full-time equivalent researchers and more than 50% of firms use technology to innovate. 

Professor Pouris, echoing Professor Nelwamondo, said: “We need a new approach where Science and Innovation should be the responsibility of all government departments if we are to achieve that elusive 1,5% target.”

The impact of CoVID

CoVID-19 research has blossomed with impressive results, according to international media reports.  Said Professor Pouris: “In 2020, there was the rapid development of several vaccines and diagnostic testing platforms. However, American studies have found that diverting attention to CoVID-19 research meant the closure of many laboratories, the cancellation of scientific and technical conferences, supply chain disruptions and delayed or uncertain graduation schedules and uncertain career prospects for trainees and early-career scientists.

“It’s going to be interesting to see, retrospectively, how these things unfolded.

US predictions of the setbacks from this single focus research funding might be valid for South Africa,” he added. It has been a rich time for social scientists investigating CoVID-related topics including how working from home, social isolation and other phenomena induced by the pandemic affect our social, economic and political behaviour.”

How can we reimagine future research in post-CoVID-19 times?

“The pandemic has exacerbated existing geopolitical tensions resulting in further restrictions on academic mobility and partnerships between China and the United States – two of the major influencers of global research.” Professor Pouris said that a 2020 USAf report that looked at the future of university research drew up university funding scenarios, “not to predict the future, but to look at possible futures with the potential to unfold, but not with definite predictions.”

“Of course, it is hard to predict which scenarios will be correct – but the scenarios were built on existing trends and drivers, literature and expert opinion.” The report, Professor Pouris said, found that the two driving forces were funding and demand for enrolment.

“The model – developed using global scenarios – predicts that Chinese funding will become a major role player internationally. Government funding will slowly disappear with more funds coming from foundations, the business sector and collaborative efforts internationally.”

The professor paints four scenarios: “If there is a high demand for enrolments, and convergence funding will come mainly from abroad, we have the first steps for a knowledge society. If, on the other hand, there is low funding and a low demand for enrolments, we might have a golden age of research for the universities. They will have substantial funding and will not be too busy with admin or teaching.

“If research funding is fragmented and uncoordinated and enrolment is low, we will have the demise of higher education,” Professor Pouris summed it all up.

Every two years, the RISG R&I Dialogue assembles delegates from the university sector, science councils, civil society and government to deliberate on the most pertinent issues of concern to the sector within the context of research and innovation.  At its peak last Friday, 140 delegates were virtually linked to the 2021 Dialogue. The biennial event is much credited for robust discussions and future thinking.

Charmain Naidoo is a writer contracted by Universities South Africa.

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