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The South African government has expressed its ambition to substantially increase the number of doctoral graduates by 2030. Graduates will be prepared for a world that is more connected in both cultural and economic terms and contribute to the country’s economic development and global competitiveness. However, the current capacity of universities is insufficient to deliver on this ambition and should be expanded, while international mobility brings up questions related to brain drain.

The South African government is calling for a major increase in the number of doctoral graduates by 2030 and this ambitious target poses a challenge to universities. A 2010 study on how to meet the demands for higher-level skills in an emerging economy explores the blockages and challenges experienced in the field of doctoral education and forms the basis of ongoing debates and initiatives on the topic.

One important initiative focuses on developing a pool of supervisors as this is a key concern in terms of the relatively low percentages of academic staff with doctoral qualifications at the various institutions, the lack of transformation and the aging cohort of supervisors. Although much has been done to increase the pool of potential supervisors, the institutional capacity to supervise the 22 498 doctoral students (2016) remains a challenge.

Closely related to the ambitious increase of doctoral graduates in South Africa is their mobility within the regional and international context. In 2005, the profile of doctoral graduates in South Africa showed that 75% were South African. The international group consisted of the other SADC countries (8%), other African countries (9.25%), Europe (3.75%) and the rest of the world (4 %). By 2016, 44% of the 2 916 doctoral graduates were international with 19.6% of the total from the other SADC countries and 20.2% of the total from other African countries.

The ecosystem for doctoral education in the rest of Africa is challenging and issues include: the lack of funding for research and doctoral studies, national and regional priorities, academics prefer consultancy, a lack of doctoral innovation, low institutional capacity, the lack of academic freedom, poor quality supervision and a lack of infrastructure, including ICT.

The developmental role of universities, and the doctorate specifically, in Africa is well understood, however, many of the African countries do not have sufficient resources to invest in the capacity to produce doctoral candidates. There is anecdotal evidence that a large proportion of the African doctoral graduates in South Africa who return to their countries intend to work in higher education institutes.

Although most of the South African universities have embraced internationalisation, the draft policy of the internationalisation of higher education in South Africa has addressed many of the concerns that exist around the disconnect between internationalisation and the South African policies. There is the issue of a brain drain in which the best students from Africa are attracted to South Africa, but the concept of brain circulation is becoming more central to this debate.

A key area of this discussion fits within the international debate regarding doctorateness and the holistic development of doctoral graduates. Understanding what is needed to support and develop doctoral graduates who will be able to contribute to the development needs of Africa is important, as is a real understanding around the knowledge generation within doctoral study. Understanding who owns knowledge, how it is built and shared, as well as matching its generation to global and pan-African development goals are key concerns in enabling Africa to grow its own capacity for producing knowledge.

Brain circulation also requires student, as well as academic staff mobility and enabling this mobility is critical. The traditional aspects of mobility must be addressed but other mechanisms such as joint supervision and cooperative research projects will also lead to knowledge generation and sharing between the north and the south.


Further readings

Cloete, N., Maassen, P. & Bailey, T. (Eds.) (2015). Knowledge production and contradictory functions in African higher education. Cape Town: African Minds.

Cloete, N., Mouton, J. & Sheppard, C. (2015). Doctoral education in South Africa. Cape Town: African Minds.


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