FUNDING‚ or the want of funding‚ appears to be the most frequently cited reason for South African universities’ failure to meet their postgraduate production targets‚ but it may not necessarily be the full story.
Research done at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University shows that incentive funding for postgraduates granted since 2005 by the higher education and training department has had the desired effect only at some universities‚ and that the annual increase in doctoral graduates is a paltry 3‚6% per year.
The national target is 5‚000 doctoral graduates per year by 2030‚ under the 2001 National Plan on Higher Education. The plan also set a target ratio of 20% of PhD students graduating each year‚ and 75% of all PhD enrolments graduating‚ the higher education journal‚ University World News‚ reports.
Universities have failed to meet these targets‚ says the report by management information consultants Ian Bunting and Charles Sheppard. "There has been a drop in the proportion of PhDs graduating.”
While from 1998 to 2002‚ 14% of doctoral students were graduating each year and 52% eventually graduated‚ by 2006-08 these ratios had dropped to 12% and 45% respectively.
That means that South Africa should have produced about 12‚300 doctoral graduates from 2005 to 2010‚ but instead produced only 7‚700. The number of research publications has grown from about 5‚000 in 1996 to more than 9‚700 in 2010. The number of doctoral graduates has risen from 685 to 1‚421.
The report further notes "considerable differences” between fields‚ with 55% of science and technology doctoral students eventually graduating‚ against 41% in the humanities‚ 45% in education and 37% in business and management.
The funding also appears to yield better results in research publication than in PhD production.
University World News reports Pretoria University vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey as saying that while there has been a substantial increase in postgraduate enrolments and graduations globally‚ growth in South Africa has been modest.
"Postgraduate supervisors were arguing that they had reached the point where they could take on no more students. There were signs of growing inefficiencies. Students seemed to be piling up in the system‚ and so the graduation rate was static. There were also concerns about time to completion‚ especially at the master’s level.”
Another critic of the incentives is Rhodes University Prof Catriona Macleod‚ suggesting that they may be counterproductive and discourage collaboration and teamwork. "The incentive system is a blunt instrument that serves the purposes of increasing university income rather than supporting scholarship and knowledge production‚” she says.
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande says that while it is appropriate that the allocation of resources focuses on research and innovation‚ it is essential to "ground the approach to these issues on the overall development objectives of the country”.
Mr Nzimande has called for closer collaboration between the government‚ industry and higher education institutions‚ though he warns against the commercialisation of knowledge which creates a value system based on the commodification of research. "We should work towards increased government input in research activities‚ because too strong a commercial focus reproduces inequalities. A lot of big companies in South Africa tend to support only particular universities‚ while former black universities are neglected.”
Prominent businessman Saki Macozoma says‚ however‚ that that view is opposite to the one viewed by the corporate world.
"Businesses have to demonstrate a commercial rationale for spending financial resources. Investment in research and development is an expression of belief in future benefits‚ which is a demonstration of future stewardship. The economies of the world are divided into three different levels‚ among them the efficiency-driven model into which South Africa has been classified‚” says Mr Macozoma.
"It is necessary to move from this category to the developed category. If we are going to do this‚ we need greater innovation. We should understand where we are‚ and what we should do to develop. One of the post-global financial crisis insights is that the survival of humanity depends on collective action to reverse our actions that put the world at risk.”
This change is captured in the group Skills for Biodiversity’s document in which they identify four key knowledge challenges aimed at enhancing sustainability‚ he says.
"They identified the need to innovate‚ to think about science for sustainability and the human and social sciences‚ among others. These priorities coincide with those that are emerging internationally such as using less water; doing more with less; preparing for rapid change and extreme events; and minimising and mitigating risks. Another important issue is food security.”
He says it is necessary to think about how these emerging issues should be researched and innovations generated so that they are commercially viable.
"It would be necessary to find ways for venture capitalists and intellectuals to invest their money and time in these emerging issues. Direct government subsidies have not worked; financing green growth requires market-based incentives‚” says Mr Macozoma.
"These emerging priorities are not less important than the building blocks of the so-called knowledge economy identified since 1994. These issues are not mutually exclusive. They offer an opportunity to deal with a niggling sensitivity in higher education; that is‚ the reach of the research rand. Ways have to be found to distribute research funding differently.
"Lastly‚ governance in higher education institutions has to be dealt with in a politically brave manner. If the towns of Alice‚ Mahikeng or Mthatha are not working properly‚ it is going to be difficult to attract the talent required at the universities housed in these towns. It is up to the citizens of the country to make these places conducive to academic endeavour.” © BDlive 2013