Postgraduate education and scholarship is not an easy ride

Published On: 8 April 2022|

Discussions that ensued at the inaugural meeting of Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice on Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (CoP PGES) on 31 March, between the key speakers and some of the 60 representatives of universities in attendance, shone a spotlight on the complexities of the postgraduate landscape in South Africa and served to reinforce the need for a collaborative and advisory forum of this type.

Professor Sioux McKenna, Director of Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University (RU), had focused her talk on the challenges that postgraduates encounter on their study journey. On access to information, she said it takes a special kind of postgraduate student to access information on postgraduate education; what enables contribution to knowledge and what kind of funding is available. She lamented uneven information access among students in different institutions and outlined numerous other challenges.

Her points triggered numerous responses, both from fellow guest speakers and from attendees who commented on the online chat platform. We cluster the comments by their themes, below:

General challenges confronting postgraduate study

  • “Time to completion seems to be the key measure of achievement. I know that I do this, myself,” said Professor Motala, from the University of Johannesburg. “When you meet your doctoral students or emerging researchers, it’s always: ‘How far are you?’ ‘When will you finish?’ ‘Have you submitted?” Never, or rarely: ‘What are you discovering?’ And ‘what have you learned?’”
  • “Loneliness of the postgraduate journey, not just in students but also in supervisors. Often, supervisors are pursuing their own PhDs themselves and take too long to feedback. This is a system-level problem that needs at least institutionally valued support structures.” – Professor McKenna, Rhodes University.
  • “One of the projects we are working on is looking at what we’re calling the leaky pipeline, because we are finding a big fall off of female students at a doctoral level” – Professor Motala, UJ.

Duration and form of study

  • “We need to address structural questions – the length and form of the doctoral degree in particular,” said Professor Jill Bradbury from the University of the Witwatersrand.
  • “If we have an institutional norm to complete a PhD in three years, we will suffer the consequences of that. It is very important to have clearly structured, curriculated differentiators for part-time students. Full-time students study in circumstances that allow them access to other forms of information, whereas part-timers are solely reliant on one supervisor relationship.” Professor McKenna, Rhodes University.
  • “It is a myth that the PhD is a three-year programme. We need to lobby for recognition of a minimum of four years.” Jill Bradbury, University of the Witwatersrand.
  • “I’m not sure why South Africa’s scholars are seen to be so much more prepared than most of Europe, USA and so on, to be able to do a PhD in three years. I get that we have the honours level, but we also have other issues.” — Professor McKenna, Rhodes University.
  • “It is impossible for most of our students to do a PhD in three years and in most cases there is no course work. They’re dependent on their supervisors(s). The workshop model is NOT WORKING !” — Dr Matlhako Mamamelela, University of Fort Hare.
  • “The three years is the systemic push related to funding, and faculty and policy HE requirements. But what happens to quality?” – Professor Shireen Motala, University of Johannesburg.

Part-time or full-time study?

  • “How do we ensure that part-time post-graduate students engage with the scholarly process? Retaining jobs appears to be a priority in South Africa, for students. The traditional model may not cater sufficiently to the needs of this class of students.” — Dirk Bester – Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
  • “Almost all postgraduate students are what we might call parttime students. They are part-time, whether they register as such, or not. They need to work to support themselves while studying and perhaps we need to start to make more allowance for that” – Professor Burton, University of Pretoria.
  • “Part-time students sometimes describe themselves as full time to access funding.” — Professor Motala, UJ.

Postgraduate students need more support

  • “By virtue of being on campus and having lunch with friends and sitting on the grass with friends, full-time students are more likely to have opportunities to be exposed to thinking aloud and sorting out their ideas in conversation with others and coming to understand their own knowledge contribution. People who are working fulltime and just popping in for supervision sessions here or there, will need more clearly structured curriculated opportunities, whether that takes the form of research methods, courses, monthly seminars, or peer presentations” – Professor McKenna, RU.
  • “This idea of curriculated support is critical, otherwise we are reproducing all the problems of an academic support add-on model based on a deficit approach. We know that this approach at undergraduate level failed to deliver transformative effects and will do so at postgraduate level too.” – Professor Jill Bradbury, University of the Witwatersrand.
  • “There’s a critical balance in our discussions that needs to be achieved between “postgrad education” (pedagogy, curricula, social justice, access etc) and “postgrad training” (professional skills development, research, and knowledge production etc)” — Professor Peter Meissner, University of Cape Town.
  • “I still find it quite unfathomable that we have PhDs who don’t do coursework. It’s something we must think about. It creates a much higher platform in terms of theory development, and research methodology development. It leaves much less to chance. And then — which might be exciting — it provides the basis for our different institutions to collaborate with each other, to offer higher level kinds of PhD and master’s programmes. One of the best examples of this is the doctoral training centres in the UK, where four or five universities get together to offer a major postgraduate qualification” – Professor Ahmed Bawa, Universities South Africa.
  • “We need coursework – students get credit and teachers’ work is understood as central and part of what we do rather than voluntary and on the side of our core tasks.” – Professor Jill Bradbury, University of the Witwatersrand.
  • “Colleagues in this room may be interested in viewing some of the info on this website, which may feed into some of the further plans and thinking of our group – the approach herein is focused on ‘researcher development’ and purposefully geared towards practicality. The initiative is ongoing on being expanded all the time: . I’m also aware there are other institutions and folk in this room who are contributing in these ways and can contribute similarly.” —Professor Peter Meissner, University of Cape Town
  • “The sustainability of our higher education system, and of our science system more generally, is dependent on us getting postgraduate education, right. If we don’t get that right, then we are in serious trouble” – Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf.


Funding challenges

Dr Abeda Dawood, a Research Associate in the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) wrote on the chat platform: “The new NRF model of funding has been very difficult for our grant holders as they cannot offer scholarships to attract students, especially as universities have very different ways of examining theses. Thus, there is no consistency, which is problematic and is affecting our retention of postgraduate students. Other delegates also added inputs on funding woes facing postgraduate studies.

  • “It appears that if private sector is not assisting in funding postgraduate education, they believe there is no benefit to the private sector. Perhaps we should consider whether private industry is involved in setting the bar for postgraduate outcomes and needs.”
    – Dr Dirk Bester, Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
  • “The comment about the role of industry is an important one. The systematic review I mentioned showed a huge increase in industry playing a role in funding, framing research problems and even supervising in various countries. BUT there were also concerns about the narrowness of industry concerns (and being driven by profit over public good). I think it’s a fine line and we need to look to more industry collaborations but be very reflexive as we do so.” Professor McKenna, Rhodes University.
  • “Only 1% of our students are funded from honours to doctoral studies” –Professor Motala, University of Johannesburg.
  • “My view is that for postgraduate training in SA to be more effective in terms of the needs of the country, resources need to be centralised. Does this CoP also look at how resources can be centralised — in particular, for scholarships for postgraduate students?” — Abeda Dawood, Tshwane University of Technology.
  • “Funding to me seems a key issue. How does this CoP propose we deal with this issue? NRF funding has declined in terms of how many students can be supported annually. In the work done so far, what funding models are institutions using to leverage resources to support PG students?” Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Durban University of Technology.
  • “Our role is mainly advisory to USAf. Should we be developing plans and proposals, that’s what we should say. We could consider setting up working groups to delve deeply into the issues we’re raising, such as Funding. Professor Stephanie Burton, Interim Chair of CoP PGES, and Research Fellow, USAf.

PG education: only supervisor-friendly or student-friendly?

  • “Every student and supervisor is different. We need to look at the role of the student on the programme. We need to also invite postgraduate students from time to time, to our meetings to hear first-hand from them.” — Professor Burton, University of Pretoria.
  • “Instead of having student representatives to the community of practice, I would suggest two or three meetings a year with postgraduate students, where you set aside half a day. You’ll probably get a bigger spread of inputs that way”– Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf.

Remuneration of retired professors as mentors?

Once again, Dr Abeda Dawood said that at the Tshwane University of Technology, they had identified the need to utilise retired professors as mentors to emerging academics, and as supervisors of postgraduate students. “This has led to a revision of our Special Appointments Policy. My question is: will this CoP have financial resources available to pay retired professors?”

In response, Professor Burton said they were not planning to pay them, and Professor McKenna penned her agreement on the chat platform. “International literature indicates that incentivising mentorship is not always successful. This is going to be based on a voluntary offering of experience and service, but we haven’t finalised the plan,” Professor Burton said.

Next steps

Professor Burton advised members to expect an email call for nominations to a more substantive steering committee, which would be elected at the next meeting of the CoP PGES, based on a shortlist of nominations that would have been received from universities. This would be a committee of seven members, one of whom would be a current member of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group.

She said the next meeting date, still to be determined, was more likely to be within weeks than months.

In the meantime, Professor Burton invited members to take a tour of the CoP PGES website, still under construction, She invited members to add their contact details in the provided space, to facilitate formation of a reliable database of this group’s membership.

Unlike other CoPs of USAf, the CoP PGES is more than likely to meet more than three times a year, “considering our highly involved agenda,” Professor Burton said, as she wrapped up the inaugural meeting.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa and
‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communication at USAf.