“Our research on and experience of working in courses to develop supervision capacity show that the contexts in which doctoral education is located shape the possibilities for its quality and purpose. The translation of global forces into national-level drivers often fails to take sufficient account of institutional contexts resulting in unintended consequences. From this perspective, the success of the current doctoral review process will depend on the extent to which it is able to explore institutional contexts and account for the ways they shape the research that emerges and the development of candidates that produce it,” said Chrissie Boughey of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University.
Boughey and colleagues, Langutani Masehela of the Centre for Higher Education Teaching and Learning, University of Venda; Sioux McKenna of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University; and, Lillian Omondi of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Maseno University, Kenya presented a seminar on their insights, research and experiences of doctoral education processes and outcomes.
“The global, national and institutional context impact on what is possible as a doctoral supervisor – what they can and can’t do – and this shapes the experiences of the students,” continued Boughey. “We have found that supervision varies enormously and that context matters to create a positive experience for supervisors and students.”
Their observations are based on their development of an accredited course on postgraduate supervision now offered at all South African universities; as well as research looking at enhancing the postgraduate environment and creating postgraduate collaborations through a project which includes two South African universities, three Kenyan universities, and universities in the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey.
Prioritising doctoral education for development
The presenters stressed that the emphasis in global discourse on the knowledge economy and the need for knowledge workers to drive it has meant the prioritisation of doctoral-level education internationally – and Africa is no exception with many countries focusing on an increase in doctoral graduates in national development policies.
“According to the 2012 National Development Plan, South Africa should produce 5000 doctorates per annum by 2030,” said Masehela.
“Kenyan policy is aligned to global goals like the SDGs – in particular those related to science, technology and innovation,” added Omondi. “There is emphasis on evidence-based work and the need to fit into the global market.”
“The nature of the doctorate is shifting,” said Boughey. “Historically most people did a PhD in preparation for an academic career. Now it’s more about building knowledge for the global economy, and to serve industry.”
To increase doctoral production you need policies and funding at national and institutional level, and these may play out in different ways in different cultural contexts within institutions. But the drive to increase the numbers as well has had some unintended consequences.
“Although the intentions may be good, people interpret them based on their own context and desired achievements,” said Omondi.
Doctoral education is increasingly shifting towards credentialing individuals at the highest levels to access higher-paying jobs and greener pastures.
“Where it is the degree itself that counts, not the knowledge underlying it, the holding of the qualification is a marker of something else,” said Boughey.
“It’s the commodification of education – with students asking how much will the degree allow me to earn?” added Omondi.
The push for increased numbers – while a good idea in principle – also means increased pressure on supervisors sometimes resulting in unsavoury behaviour.
“Supervision is under loads of pressure which leads to game playing,” said McKenna.
“There has been a rapid increase in PhD production in South Africa,” said Masehela. “There were 1420 in 2010 and more than 3500 by 2019 – but only a small increase in supervision capacity. This leads to questions of quality.”
“Heavily loaded supervisors may, in some cases, be working beyond their expertise,” she added. “This is sometimes, but not always, mitigated by senior academics mentoring less-experienced supervisors.”
The linking of the awarding of the doctoral degree to publication outputs is a particularly problematic area. Omondi pointed out that in Kenya the Commission for University Education included a requirement in 2014 that all students had to have two publications before their degree could be awarded.
“This led to publish-or-perish pandemonium,” she said. She pointed to irregularities such as publishing in predatory journals, supervisors unfairly claiming first authorship, as well as outright plagiarism which, when uncovered, has led to the suspension of degrees.
The push to complete degrees within specified time periods has also had unintended consequences.
“The funding in South Africa is for three years of study,” said McKenna. “However, our doctoral student body is often very different from elsewhere – older and studying part-time while working. The global average is 4.5 years so it is unclear why our throughput is expected to be quicker.”
“A generic premise is highly problematic,” she added. “There is very little consideration for disciplinary differences – different fields may need to offer very different models of support and different forms of doctoral degrees.”
McKenna indicated that ethical clearance for research is often a challenge because ethics committees are based on a medical model and decisions are often about institutional risk aversion rather than ethical behaviour.
The Council on Higher Education is currently conducting a review of all PhD programmes across South Africa. The rationale lies in the need to ensure the quality of research being produced. However, the presenters emphasised that the review processes do not engage with questions about the role and purpose of doctoral education nationally and globally.
“If participation in the global knowledge economy is the driver,” said McKenna. “We have to look at how many graduates actually become critically engaged knowledge workers; how much is contributed to the public good; and, we need to ask whether the exchange value has displaced the use value of a doctorate.”
“Are the multiple global and national drivers producing what they are meant to produce? Why should tax payers put money into doctoral education? And what is the intrinsic value beyond a piece of paper and a title?”
Research conversations not publications
In discussion, the presenters highlighted some of the strategies they believe can help the situation emphasising the importance of collaborative work, project teams and real mentorship as well as creating opportunities for research conversations.
“There is a need for places where people can talk research not publications,” said Boughey, “through seminars, reading groups, lunchtime networking – people talking ideas not just numbers of journal articles.”
“Finding regular opportunities to make students work together definitely builds positive peer pressure,” added McKenna.
“The dominant supervision model is based on the Oxbridge Master-Apprentice model. A one-on-one approach which often leads to supervisors just replicating their own methodologies,” continued Boughey.
They also stressed the need for supervisors to nurture their own scholarship – to continue to research and write themselves – which is not always the case across the system.
Omondi called for enhanced research dissemination. “If higher education is supposed to contribute to socio-economic development, it must not sit on a shelf.”
She also emphasised the need for careful selection of candidates in the first place. “We need to take account of the last 10 years of PhD delivery,” she said. “If it’s not working, we should be reducing numbers.”
All of this points to the need for some uncomfortable conversations.
“There is a need to articulate and, where necessary, shift institutional culture,” said McKenna.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu