A high-level panel explores PhD production and support from various perspectives 

Published On: 27 July 2023|

A report on the first large-scale national Tracer Study of PhD and Post-doctoral Graduates was released last week creating a platform for experts to debate on the dwindling number of graduates in South Africa.

The study set out to trace the mobility, career paths and other attributes of a representative sample of PhD students who graduated from South African universities between 2000 and 2018, across a range of sectors and disciplines.

The study was funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), managed by the Water Research Commission and executed by a project team from Stellenbosch University’s Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (SciSTIP).

A panel discussion of the Report findings took place at a Business Day TV-hosted event at the CSIR International Convention Centre – presided over by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, in the presence of other high-level stakeholders.

The distinguished panel discussion was chaired by Mr Semeyi Zake, Channel Head at Business Day TV, who put questions to participating panellists.

From left: Mr Nhlanhla Ndlovu, NEDLAC; Mr Thabo Mashaba, ABSA Group; Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, NRF; Dr Phethiwe Matutu, USAf; Dr Marcia Socikwa, DHET; and Dr Thandi Sithole, UJ.

Question: The investment in PhDs is significant, and developing this pipeline is a priority for us as a developing country. Should it be, given our high unemployment figures?

Mr Nhlanhla Ndlovu; CEO National Economic Development and Labour Council NEDLAC Community Trust: Of course; the two are related. This year, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) committed to creating one Community College per district as a response to unemployment. There needs to be high-quality teaching staff and the production of graduates who will be immediately absorbed into the economy – linked to the South African Economic Reconstruction and Recovery plan. It is not an either/or. Investing in PhDs and supporting innovation in quality teaching means better outcomes. If you support PhDs, their innovation helps create jobs as well as the production of other graduates.

Question: When we look at the local labour market, are we equipped to absorb the number of PhD graduates coming through?

Mr Thabo Mashaba, ABSA Group Head of Employee Relations: We in financial services use doctoral candidates or graduates in our various disciplines. At ABSA we employ more than 100 doctoral students. We have to address the sectors into which doctoral students can be absorbed, as well as the methodology of absorption. We use their critical thinking and innovative abilities, especially in project financing. When we bring them early into work streams, progression is quicker and their contribution becomes more noticeable – in comparison to when people come in later, from outside. We find that about 40% of our hires are from countries further afield in Africa, where we operate, and 60% from South Africa. Collaboration is key to producing PhDs for various institutions, especially in academia, where a lot of the skills sets we need are grown.

Question: Is there an increase in production, considering the demand for doctoral graduates?

Mashaba:  Yes, more than there was previously, especially in technical disciplines like engineering, finance, and economics. There is an interest in those who are self-funding; we are keen on funding MBAs etc

Question: Looking at the job market and the pace of economic development, is there a correlation we can point to?

Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo (left), CEO of the National Research Foundation: Regarding the job market, it is becoming evident that the system is moving in aspects of innovation. In industry and the business sector, there’s a growing trend to employ people with PhDs –graduates with PhDs in engineering or computer science, are typical examples.

Question: Are we equipping PhDs with entrepreneurial skills and competencies to create jobs?

Dr Nelwamondo: There is a gap: how do we ensure our PhDs are not just academic PhDs. As much as we appreciate the role of fundamental science, we need to expose these students to entrepreneurial and private-sector activities. The NRF wants all the PhDs they fund to graduate only after spending 6-18 months in the private sector, internationally – in Canada for example, within other sectors, or in academia. That instils in them entrepreneurial thinking and enables them to think about implementation. PhDs should be asking: How do I turn my research into a commercial product that goes to market and lets me employ people?  The World Economic Forum states that by 2030, Africa will be home to 42% of the world’s youth. How do we take advantage of this young population? How do we skill them to create sustainable jobs? We need to let skills flow across Africa.

Question: Are we doing enough, at universities, to make sure that skills are infused into the various curricula?

Dr Phethiwe Matutu (left), CEO of Universities South Africa: We have a three-tier system: academic qualifications offered by traditional universities; universities of technology that largely focus on professional qualifications and Comprehensive Universities which look at a combination of the two. Universities of technology focus on skill sets required by the industry immediately. Therefore, there is work-integrated learning where students are required to spend time in the sectors that are likely to absorb them. People from those sectors play an advisory role in the requisite curriculum. Traditional universities focus largely on training people who are problem solvers, regardless of the kind of environment they are in.

Regarding entrepreneurship, Universities South Africa (USAf), supported by the DHET, runs programmes that encourage students to be entrepreneurs. We assist with the incubation of businesses and run competitions that expose young entrepreneurs to how business is done and focus on the teaching and learning aspects of entrepreneurship. Within that, we have a Community of Practice of academics who are looking at how best to create an ideal environment of teaching and learning in entrepreneurship. Then we have a research component. We also have, so far, 10 economic activation offices (EAO) within universities. We encourage international exposure of the staff within the EAO, so our staff are aware of building blocks for entrepreneurial campuses and ecosystems.

Available data shows an uneven distribution of PhD holders, with historically advantaged universities having a higher percentage of staff with PhDs – close to National Development Plan targets. By comparison, historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) have low levels of staff with PhDs. This questions the availability of permanent positions within those institutions and creates universities that are not competitive. You use PhD holders to compete, for international exchange, to learn, come back, and implement.

Question: How are HDIs doing when compared to the likes of the University of Pretoria, UCT, etc.?

Dr Marcia Socikwa (left), Deputy Director-General: University Education, Department of Higher Education and Training: A 2017 Ministerial Task Team researched the impediments to transformation in the higher education sector. The unequal distribution of opportunities and resources has impacted how HDIs compete. I don’t like the word compete. Our focus should be on whether every student has an equal opportunity to enter the job market regardless of which institution they graduate from. We have directed funds to HDIs and funded PhDs and Masters students; we’ve established extensive partnerships with global institutions who are helping with training (lecturers).

It has been fascinating to see the number of PhD students generated in a short space of time because of international partnerships and collaborations at the University of Mpumalanga. We have international scholarships where we are facilitating opportunities for lecturers and students in these HDIs to gain global exposure. The National Development Plan has set a target of 5 000 PhDs by 2030. We will help advance scholarly development. Academic PhDs – I know we are speaking among a business-oriented audience – are very important and remain as relevant as practical PhDs.

There was also a question from an attendee in the audience to Minister Nzimande:

Mr Zurab Janelidze, President of the South African Mathematical Society: Is there value in supporting older PhD students who do not qualify for NRF funding? Young PhD graduates don’t go into the teaching profession, preferring better-paid jobs. So, we have practically no PhD holders in the school system. This would be especially beneficial as a mathematics PhD gives a different outlook when you teach the subject. Long-term teachers who would have benefitted from doing a PhD cannot get grants from the NRF because of the age cut-off (32). High school workloads preclude part-time studying. It would be wonderful for teachers to put their jobs aside for a few years and do their PhD.

Dr Nzimande: “The suggestion is excellent. In mobilising funds for more PhDs, we need to allocate funds to more categories including experienced people – the over 45s who still have the energy should be supported. They will stay where they are as they’re unlikely to compete with younger PhDs.

Dr Nelwamondo (NRF): We acknowledge the challenge. Our requirement to do a PhD by 32 to graduate at 35 comes after analysing the data: Who has more to offer the system — someone funded at 58 to graduate at 62, vs someone younger? That is why we have an age limit.

Question: What support do PhD candidates get, just after graduating, and is it adequate?

Dr Thandiwe Sithole (left), young PhD graduate in Chemical Engineering: The NRF, and the University of Johannesburg funded my Masters and PhD degrees. I also received support from the Black Academic Advancement Programme (BAA) which accelerates young academics into professorships. My post-doctoral studies allowed me to travel the world and interact and collaborate with researchers internationally. I currently collaborate with 12 established researchers worldwide. I’ve published nine articles this year. In the two years of the BAA programme, I had the time to focus on research. The Tracer Study Report says the NRF supports 22% of the funding models that we have in terms of the PhD. We need to do more in terms of collaborating with industry.

I consider myself a fortunate graduate as my project had a bit of chemistry, chemical and civil engineering and technology… I am a multi-faceted graduate, which paved the way for me to be appointed in managerial roles. Most people think PhD means you specialise in one area, but the world of future work means you have to be multi-faceted; multi-disciplinary in order to compete on a global scale. The report asks if we are doing enough to absorb PhD graduates. I see that 60% are studying part-time. Why? In terms of job security, all but 2% of PhD graduates in SA are unemployed. A PhD is no longer about just deepening your knowledge but about advancing your career prospects and job security.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.