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  • Doctoral studies in South Africa
  • Bill Freund (bio)

Thanks to a chance message, I recently received a copy of a report on doctoral studies in South Africa. What follows is a commentary for our readers, many of whom are likely to be post-graduate students themselves or academics in the South African system, and interested in engaging with these findings as well as what is left unsaid by the report. This study was produced under the guidance of the Academy of Science of South Africa and is called ‘The Ph.D Study’.1 Prof. Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and an eloquent author of books on race and education, was the senior figure in the production of what is described as ‘a consensus report’. Published only in 2010, its figures comprehensively cover the years up to 2007. They are thus not up to date but give a good impression of the post-apartheid landscape in this crossroads area between higher education institutional activity and research.

I think the interest of the document lies first of all in the quality of the figures it gives which are quite revealing of the real state of affairs. It was sufficiently thoughtful and carefully done as to provide more food for thought than the usual served up. Being at least aware that the ordering up of more PhDs may not just happen in the natural course of things, it proposes various kinds of interventions to prop up the process, interventions which may or may not work. I am sufficiently sceptical that I will not bother to itemise these interventions here. However, having said this in its favour, the Report does not really address some of the realities on the ground.

The second reason for its interest is that it gives us a chance to see an exposition of state intentions. My hypothesis is that state planners live in a kind of fantasy world with regard to higher education, if not the whole education sector, that they do everything to avoid discussing the obvious and significant, should it fit awkwardly into politically-acceptable [End Page 69] predispositions. The conventional view, as stated with some qualification above, is that management can decree and order up results, for instance, so and so many research-orientated doctorates, as though these were items on a restaurant menu. It is true that these prescriptions and the related language fit all too well with international managerial objectives superimposed with limited regard for South African realities.

Certainly the saddest thing about the Report is its failure to give substance, apart from a section where individual doctoral students evaluate their own study history, to any reason for producing PhDs, or indeed any kind of sustained and substantial research, that is not narrowly utilitarian. The desirability of nurturing individuals who can promote national cultural activity and fulfil their own talents, to promote human potential is at best a vague and marginal backdrop. The sub-title of the Report indicates that PhDs can be justified in terms of promoting ‘high level skills in an emerging economy’. A more realistic description of our economy might be a largely stagnant economy unable to escape from structures established under a very different political regime two to three generations ago while sustaining a small and increasingly sophisticated leisure class, but the definition is, of course, part of the techno-fantasy. The report slips in and out of the assumption that PhDs = high-level skills = science. In fact, only a limited percentage of our production of doctorates fits this kind of goal as we shall see below, a subject which is largely avoided.

The Report’s most basic assumption is taking for granted the overriding importance of the doctorate. This is never questioned. However, there is included an introductory table which rates countries by number of PhDs per capita. The surprising champion here is neither the United States nor China but that venerable old colonial power, Portugal. Common sense suggests that, with all due respect to Portuguese intellectuals, they are not striding the global vanguard in terms of innovative research, applied or otherwise. The poorest record in the table is held by Chile. If...


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