Quality, ranking and the changing face of PhD training
Date Released: Mon, 18 November 2013 14:40 +0200
African universities need to rethink how they understand success factors, according to Professor Cheryl de la Ray, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria and former chief executive of South Africa’s Council on Higher Education.
Perceptions of quality affect university reputations, “but what we regard as quality is not exact”. African universities need to rethink how they understand success factors, according to Professor Cheryl de la Ray, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria and former chief executive of South Africa’s Council on Higher Education. Perceptions of quality affect university reputations, “but what we regard as quality is not exact”.
Talking about PhD production across Africa, and how to increase it, De la Rey said data showed that there was a direct and positive correlation between the success of universities and the quality of doctoral qualifications. Yet, she said, there were definite perceptions about which PhDs were better than others.
“In Africa, we perceive quality often and mostly in relation to the name or brand of the institution, whereas we might find, within the same university, different levels of quality for different PhD degrees – but this is not often the way these qualifications are judged.”
De la Rey was speaking at a workshop held outside Johannesburg from 28-29 October, hosted by South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, on “Expanding and Sustaining Excellence in Doctoral Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa: What needs to be done?”
Back to the future
“Before colonialism, there were cases of institutions supporting scholarship for scholarship’s sake. Whatever existed in that era, the universities which we inhabit, which some of us lead, were shaped by their socio-political history, and colonialism played an important role in how they continue to function today.”
De la Rey said that in her PhD research, studying the history of psychology, she learned that “many of our social science disciplines were introduced to this country because the colonial authorities at the time thought that by looking at anthropology, for instance, it would help solve the native question on the southern tip of Africa”.
Even then, the purpose was not scholarship. Decisions were linked very directly to the political and socio-economic politics of the day – and “the same applies today”. Historical influences and current realities were important to take into consideration when assessing, reconfiguring and developing postgraduate training, she emphasised.
Changes in PhDs
Most people spoke about doctoral education as if it were “exclusively an education that leads to an academic or research career. We speak about this model as if it is about doing original research for someone who will be a great scholar some day. If not explicit, it’s certainly implicit in discussions we have as Africans.”
But there had been a shift in university thinking in many parts of the world – and the emergence of ranking systems that placed new pressures on universities. There had also been an increase in the professionalisation of themes, she said.
“If you go back in the history of nursing, psychology, teacher education, engineering, fine arts, performance arts, for instance, all have been professionalised and have proper boards. Some are statutory.” Most professions had organised themselves into bodies and started a process of credentials. “That has had an impact on how we think about doctoral education.”
Furthermore, De la Rey observed, increased demand for high-level skills in industry had affected PhD output. “Most social science and humanities PhD graduates find jobs in the public sector, not in universities.
“So we have to think about doctoral education in two ways: as a qualification for those wanting an academic career, but also as a professional doctorate intended for careers in industry and the professional sector.
“In South Africa we have two types in the National Qualifications Framework: general and professional – where research is only 60% of the total qualification – while the rest comprises coursework or work-based training.
“This is new, and many South African institutions are still debating whether or not to adopt this.” Many countries around the world were having the same debate, argued De la Rey.
This tied in with the shifts in doctoral education, and the purpose and nature of the qualification. “When a system dramatically increases the doctoral education, as happened in Spain some years back, unless there is absorptive capacity, they [graduates] will be unemployed or simply move to other places.”
The question of employability and career success for PhD graduates needed more attention, she suggested.
By: Peta Lee
Article Source: http://www.universityworldnews.com