Postgrads urgently need funding

18 September 2017 | Opinion Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Statistician general Pali Lehohla has said that tertiary education is the key to employing South Africa’s young people. However, the key to growing our economy is not just to put people into jobs, but to develop new business and professional sectors in which South Africans can apply their ingenuity to solving problems that can have a global effect.

Most of the world has entered the knowledge economy, which connects people globally. This is where South Africa needs to compete. It is also where postgraduate students can begin to make their mark: conducting research to address specific questions and problems in health, science, engineering and technology, computer science, law, business, media, education and social welfare — to name a few sectors. Although universities impart knowledge and skills to undergraduates, postgraduate students contribute in a very practical sense to the growth of our knowledge, economy and culture.

For instance, honours students in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) computer science department helped to develop a microplate reader app (available from Google) that allows technologists to measure samples in the field using their phones. This app has a range of medical and scientific uses.

In June this year, Aliki Saragas, a master of documentary arts graduate of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, showcased her feature-length documentary, Strike a Rock, at the Encounters International Documentary Film Festival in Cape Town and at the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival in the United Kingdom. The production, which focuses on women in Marikana, was first conceived as her graduation film.

Maryam Fish, a PhD student at UCT, was a member of the international research team that identified the gene that causes arrhythmogenic right ventricle cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal genetic disorder that predisposes young people to cardiac arrest. The ground-breaking discovery was announced in March in Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics.

Earning a postgraduate degree is also the first step towards developing a successful academic career — an important area of transformation in South Africa, in which black and women academics remain the minority.

Despite this potential for shaping the future, postgraduate education remains under-resourced in South Africa — accessible only to students from middle-class backgrounds who have the financial resources to support graduate studies. There is a crisis brewing in postgraduate education in South Africa for the same reason that tertiary education is in turmoil now. The underlying issue is how much financial support the government will allocate to this important educational and economic resource.

Many postgraduate students face the same financial problems as undergraduates. Financial assistance from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is available only to students earning their initial degree. So students who relied on NSFAS to earn their first degree must compete for a limited number of grants and scholarships to continue their education, no matter how well they performed in earning their initial degree. Many of these scholarships do not sufficiently cover university fees, materials, accommodation and living expenses.

This is short-sighted, considering, first, the need to grow our local academic capacity to transform the university sector and ensure growth, especially in terms of women and black professors; and second, the need to bring a fresh outlook to the country’s development hurdles by training up postgraduate students who have been raised in disadvantaged communities and deeply understand the kinds of problems we need to overcome as a nation.

The focus on financing only undergraduates limits the creative diversity we need to apply to these problems.

Postgraduate students point out that the higher education system puts critical obstacles in their way. These obstacles can be removed if the government applies the political will to do so. For instance, students who pursue a bachelor’s degree that requires a fourth year of study, such as business science or engineering, qualify for NSFAS assistance, yet South African students in an honours programme do not. An honours degree should be treated with the same financial support as that provided for a fourth-year undergraduate programme.

The state’s main funding body for postgraduate students, the National Research Foundation (NRF), provided only R815-million in financial support to honours, master’s and doctoral students in 2015-2016, according to its annual report for that period. In 2015, universities had 128 747 full-degree postgraduate students, according to the Centre for Higher Education Trust. So the total NRF contribution would have averaged out to R6 330 a student, for a programme of study that may cost 10 times that amount, not including other costs such as housing. (By contrast, in the same period NSFAS disbursed R9.3-billion to 418 949 university, technical and vocational students. This averages out to R22 198 a student.) In addition, postgraduate students are often not eligible for services that are provided for free to undergraduates, such as healthcare. I know of one promising postgraduate student who is devoting critical study time to washing cars to raise funds.

Support from the NRF is often paid late in the academic year, putting the student recipients in financial jeopardy. UCT is considering how to cover the funding gap in situations where the future payment of a bursary or scholarship is confirmed. Other institutions, such as the University of KwaZulu-Natal, allow for a rebate on the repayment of a student loan when the degree is awarded before the normal required time.

The NRF is not the only source of funding for postgraduate students.  Research in health, science and technology in particular receives funding from a number of outside sources, including the private sector.  In such cases, the principal investigator for a project can budget for postgraduate students to join the project.

In April this year the Black Postgraduate Student Caucus at UCT asked to meet me on this issue and other grievances. I established a task team to examine their concerns and to make recommendations, including what UCT could do to improve support to postgraduate students. Individual universities have limited resources for this purpose. In 2016, for instance, UCT contributed R23 693 941 to postgraduate students at the university.

The lion’s share of funding comes from the additional efforts of departments and individual academics in various faculties. Not every university has the resources to provide such support. Even UCT, one of the better-resourced universities, is not able to meet the vast need.

Difficult choices need to be made. It would make sense to support fewer postgraduate students fully with the available funding rather than to spread small allocations to more students who will still struggle to meet all their expenses. For the good of the country and its influence in Africa and the world, the government needs to give postgraduate funding its immediate attention.

This challenge we face is a magnificent opportunity to unlock and support the brilliance of young post-graduate talent in South Africa, but left unattended spells a sad loss of human potential and the deep contribution these scholars could have made in South Africa.

This article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian.
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is the deputy vice-chancellor of research at the University of Cape Town.

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