Research Nugget

Promoting access to and success in postgraduate education in South Africa

In celebration of Africa Day 2024, themed  Educate and Skill Africa for the 21st Century, this nugget highlights a research article that explores the challenges and successes in accessing and completing postgraduate education in South Africa.

For the first two decades since its formation, the Council on Higher Education (CHE) focused more on undergraduate education than on postgraduate studies. This was due to undergraduate programs and students comprising about 90% of the higher education system and having the most urgent problems to address. While this focus on undergraduate studies was understood, there was also a concern that ignoring postgraduate education was unsuitable for the South African higher education system. Undergraduate education prepares students for postgraduate studies, and postgraduate education produces the academics who will teach undergraduates and manage undergraduate programs. This strong connection between the two means that focus on one without consideration of the other could lead to ineffectiveness.

A research study presented at the March 2023 conference organised by the CHE explored the challenges and successes in accessing and completing postgraduate education in South Africa. The study aimed to identify and discuss key issues that affect national policies, plans, programs, and initiatives to enhance access to and success in postgraduate education.

These issues emerged from the analysis, triangulation, and interpretation of data from multiple projects on postgraduate education conducted by the Council on Higher Education since 2018.

The issues highlighted in the research are:

  1. Small size and slow growth: The postgraduate section of higher education in South Africa is relatively small and needs to grow faster.
  2. Pyramidal structure: The distribution of postgraduate students is pyramidal, with most enrolled in postgraduate diplomas and Honours degrees, fewer in Master’s programs, and very few in Doctoral programs.
  3. Completion time and dropout rates: Although the number of graduates at all postgraduate levels has increased, more students take longer to complete their studies, and dropout rates remain high.
  4. Demographic representation: The profiles of postgraduate students and graduates need to be more representative of the national demographic profile, an indication of the need for transformation.
  5. Inadequate funding: Only a small portion of potential postgraduate students receive funding, which often does not cover the total cost of study and living expenses, which forces students to take part-time jobs.
  6. Low supervisory capacity: Institutions have low supervisory capacity for postgraduate students.
  7. Lack of support services: There needs to be more support services available for postgraduate students.
  8. Under-preparedness of students: Many students are underprepared for the demands of postgraduate studies.

Despite the challenges listed above, the research found that the human capital development programmes of the Department of Science and Innovation and its agencies, particularly the National Research Foundation (NRF), contributed significantly towards the promotion of access to postgraduate education at Doctoral level. In particular, the South African PhD Project, conceptualised and implemented by the NRF during early 2000s, produced some encouraging results.