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Working Scientist podcast: How apartheid's legacy can still cast a shadow over doctoral education in South Africa

1994 South African general election

Credit: Brooks Kraft/Sygma/Getty

Higher education experts tell Julie Gould about PhD programmes in South Africa.

It's 25 years since since South Africa's first free elections swept Nelson Mandela to power as president.

But higher education in the "rainbow nation" (a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the post-apartheid era), could do more to encourage integration and collaboration between black, white and international students.

Jonathan Jansen, a professor in the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University, tells Julie Gould that despite seismic political change in 1994, education, research, and economics have not kept pace with the country's democratic transformation.

Liezel Frick, director of the Centre for Higher and Adult Education at Stellenbosch University, says that around 60% of students are part-time, with many having staff positions at universities.

Doctoral education still clings to a research-focused "Oxbridge model," she adds, and unlike programmes in North America does not offer credits for coursework and elective classes. "What is different is that we do not have an over-production of PhDs. A lot of PhDs still get absorbed into the academic sphere," she says.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03858-w

Transcript

Higher education experts tell Julie Gould about PhD programmes in South Africa.

Julie Gould

Hello, and welcome to Working Scientist, the Nature Careers podcast. I’m Julie Gould. This podcast is about how universities in South Africa are changing to make sure that apartheid doesn’t continue to affect doctoral researchers from any nation, colour or background.

It’s been 25 years since apartheid was officially abolished in South Africa and yet even though all this time has passed, it still casts long shadows over the country – not just in the streets but also in academia. Now, Jonathan Jansen, who is a professor of education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, has studied how apartheid has impacted South African universities.

Jonathan Jansen

So, one of the things that has become very, very clear to many of us is that the dramatic political change of 1994 – South Africa gets democracy and apartheid is legally over – that that did not mean that education, research, economics etc. changes at the same pace. The main problem with this shadow from our distant past is people who haven’t shifted, particularly in the large research universities, the understanding that there is something inherent in ‘Indianness’ or ‘colouredness’ or ‘whiteness’ that predisposes people towards certain kinds of social health and behavioural outcomes.

Julie Gould

Charity Kombe has experienced this division first hand. She’s originally from Zambia – one of South Africa’s neighbouring countries – but moved to the University of Pretoria in South Africa to do a PhD and postdoc in higher education studies.

Charity Kombe

So, one of the things that struck me when I arrived at the University of Pretoria, I think it’s like 55% whites, 45% blacks, and I noticed that people don’t mingle a lot. So, the whites would be alone in their own corner and the blacks would be alone in their own corner, and also the international students would be alone in their own corners. South Africans and blacks, they like to stay on their own, the whites, they are also on their own and then the international students try to mingle with their locals but they find these divisions, so you also end up like I would mostly spend time with my Zambian friends or other people from other African countries because I think the division is still there and even if people come in to try to bridge the gap, it’s still embedded in that. And then also, during my postdoc I had the privilege of teaching a third-year class. This was a compulsory course so it had about 400 students and I noticed the same pattern. So, people were seated, the whites alone, the blacks alone, the international students alone. There was one group assignment I had to give and so I knew that it was sensitive for me to tell them to group, to mingle, so this was one thing I just said. I put it as some kind of a joke. I said, ‘Okay, so the groups that I will make will consist of at least an international student, a white, a black, female, male,’ and they were like, ‘No, no, no!’ They protested. ‘We want to work with people we are comfortable with,’ and basically, it was an issue of colour. Yeah, so, they say it’s a rainbow country but I think they are far from achieving that as long as we have these divisions that are really apparent.

Julie Gould

Do these divisions that exist make it difficult for you to do research when you’re, for example, trying to form collaborations from networks with people? Do these divisions hold you back there as well?

Charity Kombe

No, they really didn’t hold me back. There are these divisions and they create inner circles but if you break through, like I managed to break through. I had white friends. I also had black South African friends. So, you really need to know how to have the skills to break into them.

Julie Gould

Breaking into these social groups isn’t easy, and the academic system in South Africa doesn’t offer much support for many of those who have been affected by apartheid. But I don’t know much about South African universities or the infrastructural systems that have been put in place, so I asked Liezel Frick, director of and an associate professor in the Centre for Higher and Adult Education at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, to give me a brief overview of what the infrastructure is like at South African universities.

Liezel Frick

In the past and up until the present, doctoral education follows a kind of Oxbridge model where it’s mostly PhDs and by research only. We do not have the same system as in North America where you have credit-bearing coursework as part of your doctorate. Though you might do courses, they don’t really count within your doctorate. So, what is different in South Africa and the rest of Africa to, for instance, North America and many European countries, is that we do not have a so-called overproduction of PhDs and a lot of PhDs still get absorbed into the academic sphere. So, when we have debates around different career pathways, we are always saying yes, that’s a really good idea and we buy into that idea, but at the moment, there’s not what we would say is a saturation. Although academic positions are limited, a lot of the people who are doing doctorates are actually already staff members at universities, which also tells you another issue that we have, at least in South Africa. The majority of the students at PhD level would be part-time students. More than 60% of the students registered for doctorates in South Africa are part-time students.

Julie Gould

This creates a problem when it comes to finding funding, especially when you’re from a black South African background, and as a result of apartheid, black South Africans weren’t allowed to access secondary or tertiary levels of education at the time. Now, this means that only now are they entering the system and they’re so much older and this causes an issue when looking for PhD funding, says Puleng Motshoane, a doctoral student at Rhodes University in South Africa.

Puleng Motshoane

Those challenges also contribute to the fact that we can’t complete a PhD in three years, where in natural sciences, the funding is for three years or even maybe in four years. As part-time students, the average is five years for us.

Julie Gould

That is challenge. There is no flexibility in the funding system to accommodate that?

Puleng Motshoane

No flexibility at all because for you to get funding, you have to be under 40 and with the dynamics of the country, we are all above 40. Very few people are under 40 who can access that funding. With us, then the other issue with the funding would be that no, you have a full-time job and the funding is only for people who are studying full time because with us we have full-time jobs and we are just part-time students, so the funding also doesn’t accommodate us, unless it’s funding for a project that is received by the supervisor, then it will be a project researching this topic also given time, but the funding still is limited.

Julie Gould

But due to the nature of the natural sciences, there is a bit more funding available, says Ronel Steyn, another PhD candidate from Rhodes University.

Ronel Steyn

Obviously, for some natural sciences you can’t do part-time study. You have to be there. It’s like a job. The funding is very competitive. There is more for the STEM sciences, there is more funding that will give you three years’ worth of living expenses and stipend and whatever, and your research costs are covered because it’s the lab, but those do come with strict agendas from the funder. So, often those are very limited, so it’s not exploratory research. We would like to know which yeast is going to make better wine and therefore you will study the strain of yeast and that’s how it works. So, the idea that the PhD is more exploratory, that we probably don’t have as much in the natural sciences.

Julie Gould

Jonathan, Liezl, Ronell and Puleng are all researchers in higher education practices in South Africa and are all advocating for a change in the infrastructure of doctoral education, for equal opportunity, for increased supervision, for increased financial support for all doctoral researchers. But making changes is difficult, as Jonathan Jansen argues.

Jonathan Jansen

There are huge sociological issues, and the way to address that, I have argued, is to make sure, first of all, that you have a six-year PhD, as opposed to forcing people to do it in three or four years. Secondly, to make sure that the training takes people through the step way as opposed to the simply the individual, old, British model that we still use, I think, for the PhD and it’s a huge mistake, which is one-on-one supervision, if you show up, okay, and the other direction of that is to have a co-ord model, is to take 20 students. Students, in my experience, do much better when they’re learning with other people at the doctoral level and interestingly, I think women do even better than men in this regard. There’s an openness, there’s a shared interest, there’s less of a competitive streak and people really do well when there’s a co-ord model of an extended period of time with really, really good supervision and full funding. So, you almost have to fund those older students at a level beyond which you’d fund a bright, 22-year-old going into a genetics laboratory. So, we have to account in the funding model, but also in the doctoral design, we have to account for those sociological realities which are real.

Julie Gould

Now, Ronel Steyn says that making changes doesn’t actually have to take an inordinate amount of time or money.

Ronel Steyn

Given resource-poor environments, given inequalities, also between institutions, there are huge discrepancies, what can we do within those contexts to make it better? So, for example, more collaboration between institutions, between academics themselves to assist one another, and this sort of idea of really being aware of what the challenges are for a new generation of PhD scholars who perhaps haven’t been accommodated within our systems, and it doesn’t necessarily cost money. It has to do with flexible approaches and being explicit about our needs. So, I would frame it that way, that there is a lot that we can do, there is a lot of potential, there’s a lot of good within our institutions, very well-resourced institutions, and it’s a matter of finding ways to use that to transform the systems.

Jonathan Jansen

I think you can do it in the present. I don’t think one has to wait for the distant future. I really do believe that in certain professions, it should be possible to design the programmes in such a way that you accommodate working mothers, for example. This goes not just for the big structural changes, but simple things. As a vice chancellor, for example, I had established the first lactation rooms ever at a South African university, just so that a working mother who also studies late at night is able to provide for her child. It’s a complex of yes, organisation, yes, design, yes, psychological and emotional and other kinds of support systems that enable students to get through. Having said all of that, I also do think there’s a certain resilience because South Africans are particularly good at crying foul, the way an Italian soccer player dives in a competitive soccer match, and I’m not saying these aren’t real problems, but there’s also something called resilience that you have to develop in students that says, I‘m going to get this PhD and I don’t care what else happens but I’m going to do that. The biggest reason for success in a PhD, in my experience in South Africa, is the determination of that person.

Julie Gould

This resilience extends beyond academic achievement and when Charity Kombe started out at the University of Pretoria, she noticed a big divide between the groups of people, as we heard earlier. But she’s a testament to Jonathan’s statement about being determined to make changes, to make a difference and to be resilient.

Charity Kombe

The basic thing is to accept that we are all human beings and we are all seeking a common goal. We all want education, we want to be successful, and so for me, I didn’t see that as a barrier. I saw it as an opportunity, for example, to learn other people’s cultures. So, we are different. We should celebrate our diversities and then we should not be scared. It’s about trying.

Julie Gould

Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

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