Professor Andrew Leitch’s presentation on the Council on Higher Education’s (CHE’s) Doctoral Degrees National Report generated considerable discussion when he presented some of its key findings at a recent meeting of the Community of Practice for Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (CoP PGES). This community of practice is one of Universities South Africa’s nine such groups facilitating collaboration among professional groups operating within public universities.
Leitch, who is Emeritus Professor and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University, headed the writing team of senior academics that worked on the review, published in March 2022. Professor Stephanie Burton of the University of Pretoria, chairperson of the CoP PGES’s interim steering committee, was also on the writing team. This is an edited version of some of the discussion that followed the presentation: [For context, this discussion must be read alongside the main article published on this platform, titled Putting the focus on the quality of South Africa’s doctoral qualifications.]
Question One: Professor Brett Bowman, Head of Postgraduate Strategy, University of the Witwatersrand: I have not yet had time to read the report, so am finding this presentation extremely valuable. CREST (the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University) recently released “A national tracer study of doctoral graduates in South Africa”, which is also in my reading queue. I was wondering to what degree these reports talk to each other and perhaps triangulate findings, although they do indeed have different emphases (CREST’s water focus etc).
Professor Leitch: We did not consider that report. Our primary sources of information were the institutions’ 28 self-evaluation reports that we needed to interrogate, as well as the panel review reports. Hopefully there will be consensus that the one speaks to the other. We’ve completed our work and the research that CREST undertakes is recognized for excellence, so I’m sure there will be alignment between these reports.
Question Two: Dr Simphiwe Nelana, Director: Research and Higher Degrees at the Vaal University of Technology: This notion that sending theses for examination overseas improves quality is one of the things that I find interesting. To what extent is the issue of collusion prevalent in institutions, where I’ll have colleagues who will send their theses to me and, in return, I’ll do the same? Were you able to uncover such things?
Professor Leitch: Our sense was that having international examiners does not necessarily add value to the examination process. What is very important is the independence of those examiners. And so, that does speak to the question of collusion that you’ve raised. That unfortunately does appear to happen in places. It is almost like an unsigned agreement that if you mark mine off well, I’ll mark yours off well. That is very disturbing. We sensed that could be happening.
Equally concerning, is where a supervisor has a colleague, perhaps abroad, who has been a research collaborator for many years, and that supervisor uses that colleague, year after year, for five to 10 years as the examiner, because then there is no longer independence. A familiarity creeps in that can lead to collusion; there could be familiarity of examiners, and that is certainly concerning.
Professor Burton: The issue of how assessors or examiners are appointed, and their track record, was also something that was inconsistent across the board.
Question Three: Dr Siyanda Makaula, Director of Quality Management at Cape Peninsula University of Technology: Whose responsibility is it to inform students registered for doctoral qualifications that they do not meet the qualification standard? Any recommendations?
Professor Leitch: Officially it’s the responsibility of the postgraduate studies committee that should be in place. It’s a serious decision. And, certainly, the supervisor should not just drop a bombshell. Such a decision is the culmination of many warnings that should have been put in place. That’s when the supervisor and maybe the head of department will have been playing a role. We would support that each university has the requirements of an annual progress report from each of its doctoral students. This would help to evaluate to what extent the graduate attributes are being progressively met during the journey of the student.
Question Three follow-up: Jill Bradbury, Associate Professor, University of the Witwatersrand: I interpret the question differently – about qualifications that do not meet the standard, rather than the student.
Professor Leitch: I am a member of the National Standards and Reviews Committee (NSRC), a subcommittee of CHE, which has been looking over the past six months at the improvement plans required of each institution. So, with regards those cases where the qualification currently does not meet the standard, there will be steps put in place with timelines and reporting back to the CHE. So the CHE is addressing it specifically with those institutions.
Question Four: Mr Bitso Paul Bitso, Postgraduate Studies Manager at the University of Fort Hare: As far as postgraduate policies are concerned, would you recommend that each faculty within the same institution has its own policies or there be one encompassing institutional policy, for example, on assessments or admissions?
Professor Leitch: Our view is that there should be one overarching policy for the institution. The faculties can have implementation plans that differ in their detail (depending on the nature of the faculty), but the plans need to be consistent with the central policy.
Question Five: Dr Eurika Jansen van Vuuren, Senior Lecturer, University of Mpumalanga: Is a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between a supervisor and a student taken seriously by both partners? Or is it just a dead document? How can it be given more gravitas?
Professor Leitch: Students need to be made aware of it at registration. You can’t start wanting to sign an MOU in year three when things are not working out. If it’s implemented correctly from the start of the studies and with the full support of the supervisor, it is an incredible asset to have in place.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa