Building postgraduate enrolment and graduation is a critical challenge for South African universities, many of which aspire to a 50:50 ratio of postgraduate to undergraduate students. Competition for the small pool of postgraduate students is fierce, as institutions make plans to improve on knowledge transfer, supportive infrastructure, and most of all, funding.
South Africa produced little over 1 500 doctoral graduates in 2011, according to the Department of Higher Education and Training. Although this is substantially up on the number generated a decade before, it is far too low to satisfy the country’s developmental needs, grow the economy and improve our human resource capacity. International demand for South African graduates and the ongoing brain drain cause further shrinkage of this small body of professionals, adding urgency to the situation.
Postgraduate students are essential to a university’s research output, a factor that plays a significant part in global university rankings, along with indicators such as awards and citations, publication count and staff/student ratio. These rankings are dominated by academic establishments in the United States and the United Kingdom, with only one South African institution, the University of Cape Town, appearing with any regularity among the world’s top 200.
The historical legacy of exclusion is at the heart of South Africa’s poor postgraduate record, and the country’s educational focus on secondary schooling is expected to prevail for some time. The number of successful undergraduates filtering through our universities provides insufficient throughput to postgraduate levels. The cost of postgraduate study is as much to blame and, although funding can be accessed, it is limited.
A need for postgraduates is a challenge many developing countries are facing. A notable exception is Brazil, which has overcome the problem by offering free education up to doctorate (PhD) level at public universities, funded federally and through state governments.
Postgraduate students need multiple forms of comprehensive support including development of research competencies and academic writing for publication as well as ongoing mentoring and information sources. They need to be pointed in the direction of funders. In South Africa where postgraduate students tend to be more mature, studying part-time and juggling job and family obligations, time to completion often takes longer than it should.
In their initiatives to upgrade postgraduate studies and increase enrolment, local universities have opted for different models. Some have left the responsibility within their individual faculties. The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has gone for a cross-disciplinary approach, establishing the Postgraduate Centre (PGC) three years ago, under the directorship of Professor Shireen Motala. Its mandate is to provide support in the broadest sense – from accommodation to quality scholarship – to some 6 000 students in its postgraduate community.
“UJ has committed to being among the top universities globally and a force in the international arena,” states Motala. “Research capacity within the PGC is essential to increase its legitimacy and enable it to interact at the appropriate level with similar structures within South Africa and abroad. This capacity will also enable the PGC as an entity to develop research-led qualifications that can be offered to champion specific areas of interdisciplinary research.” UJ is a member of Universitas 21, a worldwide network of research intensive universities.
While the full impact of the PGC is expected to become evident in the next two years, there are already early successes. Between 2011 and 2012, Master’s qualification was up 9,14% and Doctoral graduation by 60,29% – an impressive achievement albeit from different cohorts. Internal and external sources of funding have improved and UJ’s published research has spiralled.
The University has also factored in a Staff Qualification Programme to fast track the postgraduate studies of academic staff. The programme assists participants with funding and study leave. UJ’s aim is that all staff hold the minimum qualification of a Master’s degree.
Motala, who is also President of the South African Education Research Association, hopes the PGC will develop into a fully-fledged postgraduate school. Currently it supervises 12% to 14% of the university’s student body of 50 000.
She points out that a focus on postgraduate studies is as important in the Further Education sector as it is at universities. “After all, only a relatively small percentage of the population will go to university, while other tertiary colleges and institutions have a vital role to play in contributing professionals to the country and its economy.”