No fixing PhD deficit without fixing schools

A graduation ceremony can tell you a lot about the state of society and a country’s education system.

Last week I officiated at my last graduation event, and here are some anecdotes from seven years of observation of more than 70 ceremonies.

It is very clear that more women are graduating than men.

This is very good news given that for decades men were either the only graduates from universities or the overwhelming majority to walk across the stage.

But be careful before celebrating – this does not simply mean that more women are graduating; it also means that fewer men are coming through high school graduation and even fewer surviving the undergraduate years.

The sociology explaining the falling away of men is complex, including push (out of school by poor education) and pull factors (into work or anti-social behaviour) factors.

As gratifying is the fact in the former white universities, like the University of the Free State, most graduates are black and especially black women, and yet the overall class of graduates are richly diverse.

This is good for the country – both correcting past disadvantage in who gets degrees, but ensuring that the diversity of students enable continued learning and living alongside and among each other before entering the real world.

Equally satisfying is the fact that the top students, measured by those who obtain their degrees with distinction, are mainly women and richly diverse by race.

In difficult subjects like actuarial science and mathematical statistics, black students stand out as distinction candidates.

There are, however, still major challenges ahead.

In subjects like physiotherapy, optometry, veterinary science and early childhood education too few black students enrol and graduate.

Again the reasons are complex including the feminisation of certain professions (like the teaching of preschool children), perceptions of occupational value in impoverished communities (animal medicine) and historical lack of opportunity which has never been corrected (architecture).

These are the areas in which the next generation of transformation struggles must be directed – changing the equity and opportunity profiles in hard-to-change disciplines.

A serious concern is the paucity of black South African doctorates.

More and more PhDs graduating from public universities are from other African countries; that is fantastic and adds both skills and a different kind of diversity to our campus lives and cultures, as well as potential academic appointments.

Yet the hard absence of locals points to the narrowing pipeline of graduates from high school to bachelors, honours, masters and then doctoral degrees.

So here’s the hard reality – you cannot fix the PhD graduate problem unless you fix the schools.

It is as simple and as complex as that.

For the same reason, you cannot fix the dearth of black professors unless real opportunity is created and sustained in earlier years.

An observation made by my chancellor, Dr Khotso Mokhele, is that even with the few South African doctorates in the humanities, these graduates tend to be in their 40s and 50s and even older.

The main reason is that these fields often require work experience after the first degree (teaching or law or social work, for example) and these mainly black or poorer students often feel the pressure to earn to support families.

What this trend means is that the chances of long-term employment is very limited and therefore the problems of transformation in companies and on campuses will not be resolved.

For a newly minted PhD to become a full professor takes time and this means that this small pool of doctors will seldom reach the pinnacle of an academic appointment as professor in the limited time left on the job.

This trend is very different in the natural sciences where students often go through the three or four degrees to the PhD without or with little interruption to their studies.

The result is that science PhDs are much younger but it is exactly in this set of disciplines where even fewer black South Africans obtain the doctorate. And finally, in almost every graduation ceremony I ask the new graduates to raise their hands if they are the first in the family to get a degree.

To this day, most of the hands on the floor of the graduation hall go up in response.

That tells you how far we still have to go to reach families across the nation with higher education.

And yet with each hand that goes up, our universities make an enduring difference in the lives of individuals, families and communities.

That is something to celebrate.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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