June 17, 2014

Doctoral Education in South Africa: University and industry collaboration

By Anya Klyukanova & Roxana Chiappa

Facing particular issues of its own higher education system and shaped by a global competition for attracting the most talented citizens, South Africa is developing strategies to increase its number of PhDs, particularly in areas in need  by the industry. CIRGE had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Ahmed Bawa, vice-chancellor of Durban Technology University in South Africa and an expert of doctoral education in this country. 

Dr. Bawa


“In a country of 52 million people, only 1800 doctorates are produced each year”. With this statement, Dr. Ahmed Bawa begins to address the magnitude of the challenge that South Africa is facing in its higher education system. His experience as a professor of physics and administrator for more than 20 years provides us a good insight into the different challenges of a national higher education systems confronted with globalization.

“One of the main challenges in doctoral education for South Africa is the undersupply of good candidates. Even when we recently have partnered with the industry sector to train an increasing number of their workers, we still have to adapt several components”.

This fact should be understood within the context of its late development of mass higher education that South Africa, among other developing countries, has addressed in the last three decades. Dr. Bawa ties this to the “very serious pipeline problem in South Africa, with a small number of primary and secondary schools functioning well, while the majority function poorly. So the problem is that from the very outset when students leave the school system, the pool from which to draw applicants is already quite small and it only gets smaller when you get to the PhD point.” For this reason, most PhD applicants, at least in the field of engineering, tend to be “mature scientists who have been in the industry for quite a while”, Dr. Bawa explains.

Given this context, tertiary education institutions are now starting to collaborate with the industry sector in an effort to train the next generation of PhD graduates. This collaboration is seen in the two different types of doctoral degrees offered to students: (a) research-based programs, focused mostly on the student’s dissertation, and (b) coursework-based programs, where the students spend half of their time on coursework. As explicated by Dr. Bawa, “the coursework-based doctoral programs are aimed at people who are in the industry sector and although there is research, it relates to the work situation, rather than being linked to some academic imperative. These specific programs provide the basis for people in industry to study problems and projects that emanate from their own industry.”

Moreover, Bawa highlights that there is a growing tendency amongst some of the big industries to require people in the laboratories to move towards these industry based doctoral programs. “Among the industries, there is almost a requirement that the senior scientific staff should have doctorates; specifically industrially oriented doctorates.”

Knowledge economy and government policies

South Africa, among other emergent economies, has chosen to take a knowledge economy route in its macro economic policy. “Therefore, there’s a strong impetus to employ people with higher qualifications, so that’s applying pressure for enrollments”,  Dr. Bawa adds. “A lot depends on what the state of the economy is and whether a particular industry is creating a lot of innovation or not. If there’s a lot of innovation going on, then there’s pressure to increase the number of people with masters or doctorates.”

To shape these ecosystems, a number of policy initiatives such as the National Education Policy Initiative (NEPI) and the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE), the National System of Innovation, the National Research and Development Strategy have focused on the provision of access and social mobility for students. Given these policies higher education in South Africa is seen to be a major development driver in the country’s information-knowledge system.

In tandem with these policies, the South African government introduced reforms to its migration policy. Similarly to how other counties are increasing efforts to attract the most talented scientists worldwide, the immigration policies in South Africa are “being revisited and improved to try and make it easier for people to come into the country and enter the science system, either as professors or as doctoral candidates. An example of this effort is the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), where the idea was to attract very high-level scientists from across the world into South Africa. The research chairs are very prestigious and are given financial support to set up their own laboratories.”

This type of policy is trying to solve one of the biggest challenges within higher education, according to Dr. Bawa. “The big challenge for us is to try and understand how to have a sustainable higher education system that can produce the next generation of academics. What do you do in the meantime? Well, we can’t simply just wait for the school system to improve – that’s going to take many years so the question is how do you get students into the system, keep them in the system, and improve their capacity to succeed?”

Professor Ahmed Bawa is a theoretical physicist. Until August 2010 he was a faculty member of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Hunter College and a member of the doctoral faculty at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.