Putting the focus on the quality of South Africa’s doctoral qualifications

Published On: 18 July 2022|

Are South African doctoral programmes educating the thinkers we need as a country?

Professor Andrew Leitch (right), Emeritus Professor and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University, posed this question during his presentation at the online meeting of Universities South Africa’s Community of Practice for Postgraduate Education and Scholarship (CoP PGES), held on 7 July.

Professor Leitch was presenting a snapshot of the Council on Higher Education’s (CHE) Doctoral Degrees National Report, published in March 2022. Officially the coordinator, he effectively headed the team who wrote the report. The team comprised five senior academics and included the chairperson of CoP PGES’ interim steering committee, Professor Stephanie Burton, who is a Research Fellow at USAf, and a Professor of Biochemistry and Professor at Future Africa at the University of Pretoria.


Why the review took place

The National Research Foundation had proposed the review to the CHE in 2017. Professor Leitch said its motivation included considering whether the mergers and restructuring of higher education institutions around 2005 had affected their quality. Other reasons included increased workloads, reduced funding in the sector, the massification of doctoral registrations, the increased enrollment of foreign students, and the increase in students who work while studying towards their doctoral qualification.

Stats from 2019 show that the ratio of doctoral students per academic staff member has tripled in recent years.

“When considering international comparability, competitiveness and mobility, what is the standing of our doctoral qualification? ‘’ asked Leitch.

Setting the doctoral standard

The starting point of the CHE review process was establishing a standard for the doctoral qualification. This standard was published in 2018 after dissemination for public comment. It is the benchmark against which doctoral qualification offerings were assessed in the report.

“Very, very importantly, the standard statement is a threshold statement,” said Professor Leitch. In other words, it sets out the minimum requirements to be met. The multi-faceted standard also looks at graduate attributes, and how these “represent the purpose of the qualification and how evidence of achievement is assessed,” said Leitch.

Challenges of the review process

Leitch said institutions are at various stages with regards to offering the doctorate. For some it’s relatively recent; others have been offering the qualification for decades. “We found there is often a lack of alignment between the doctoral qualifications offered by an institution and that same institution’s context – in other words, the mission, the goals, the strategic plan. It’s almost like the two don’t always talk to each other,” he said.

He said the writing team experienced different responses from institutions in preparing the self-evaluation report. “At the one extreme there was what I would call reluctant compliance. On the other extreme, an absolute all-embracing enthusiasm,” he said.

“Site visits also revealed, unfortunately, ignorance among some staff and many students regarding the actual review. There was a sense in some cases that top management or admin had prepared the review and some staff  – I’m referring to academics, supervisors, professors, support staff, and doctoral students themselves – were not even aware of it,” he said.

There were also different understandings of what constitutes above-threshold practice. For example, some institutions regarded the use of special software to try to detect plagiarism as an above-threshold practice, while others regarded it as merely what is expected of an academic institution, and not above threshold.

Policy framework lacking or outdated at many institutions

Leitch outlined five key findings that need to be addressed:

  • Policies are lacking. They either don’t exist or are not up to date. This includes selection and admission processes, recognition of prior learning, registration, and recruitment. “It’s a thread that goes right through the report. The world has moved on. Institutions are not where they were five years ago, and policies are already outdated. That’s one thing that should immediately be addressed,” he said;
  • This weakness in the polices created “a lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities with regard to admission and registration across different faculties and departments, even within the same institution,” he said;
  •  A wide variation in the level of preparedness expected of doctoral candidates at the time of the selection and admission. “We feel this leads to the acceptance of inadequately prepared doctoral students, which may contribute to the large dropout especially after the first year of doctoral studies,” he said;
  • Some institutions require the doctoral proposal to be approved before registration is allowed. This adds the expectation of work to be done, which requires using the institution’s facilities such as libraries and laboratories, and the support of the supervisor. “So the role and the responsibility of the supervisor is not always clear during the selection and registration process,” he said; and
  • The systems for assessment of the competence of applicants and their potential to develop these strengths could be strengthened, said Professor Leitch.

Supervision of doctoral candidates

“There is clearly a need for additional supervisory capacity and ongoing training across the whole national system,” Professor Leitch said. This relates to the provision of supervisors, the monitoring and managing of workloads, the induction of new supervisors, ongoing developmental training of experienced supervisors as well as emerging supervisors, and supervision models.

Although not inherently problematic, increasing doctoral numbers has led to the outsourcing of supervisory roles to external contractors, which may present further challenges not fully appreciated by institutions.

Other matters of supervision that need to be considered include:

  • alternative supervisory models such as cohort supervision;
  • the benefits of postgraduate centers or schools;
  • writing centres specially geared for supporting doctoral candidates;
  • the benefits of the supervisor-student memorandum of understanding (MOU) to address conflict from either perspective; and
  • ethical awareness and professional conduct as well as training, and a general understanding of ethics in research.

The need for a higher degrees’ committee

Leitch said they were surprised to find that not every institution has a formally established and well-functioning higher degrees committee or equivalent. “This is a senior committee, which should be in place at every institution offering the doctoral degree,” he said.

He said institutions need clear and explicit policies for the selection and appointment of examiners so that this is not just left to departments and for the same examiners to be used year after year. Further, policies to address examination appeals need to be in place and applied consistently across faculties.

Examples of good practice

Leitch stressed not everything was negative. “There are many examples of excellent practice within the higher education sector for which we may be justly proud. There is no single institution that has got everything right but there are pockets of excellence that we did pick up, spread across the sector,” he said. “They provide assurance of the commitment and dedication of many individuals who are collectively responsible for the doctoral qualifications. It’s not just the supervisor, it’s also the technician. It’s the library support staff. It’s top management.”

These good practices included the benefits of international partnerships such as bilaterals, especially with the opportunity now to offer joint degrees at postgraduate level. The oral evaluation or defence is also recognized as a good practice that should be encouraged.

“Those doctoral qualifications that meet the standard are, in general, in our view, equivalent to the international standard for doctoral qualifications,” said Professor Leitch, saying the fact that many graduates from South Africa get postdoctoral fellowships abroad supported this view.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.