New higher education network to boost production of PHDs among university staff

Posted on August 02, 2018

A higher education network that entails American and South African universities working together, was launched in Johannesburg recently. The overall collaboration will strengthen various aspects of the South African higher education system.

The organising members of the United States-South Africa Higher Education Network are Rutgers University-Newark, the University of Pretoria (UP), the University of Venda, and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), which provided seed funding for this initiative.

The first partnership to be implemented through the network is phase one of the University Staff Doctoral Programme (USDP), which is part of the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme. The USDP aims to produce a stronger and high-quality pipeline of PhD graduates among academic and professional staff at local universities.

At a workshop of the Network which was attended by representatives of South African and American universities (from states such as Florida, Virginia, Connecticut and New Jersey), at UP’s Gordan Institute of Business Science, Dr Whitfield Green, Chief Director of Teaching and Learning Development at the DHET, said the goal of the USDP is “to increase the number of permanent academic and professional staff at South African universities who hold doctoral degrees and to build postgraduate supervisory capacity in South African universities.” 

In the first phase, 12 projects are being funded to the tune of R76 million. Universities are involved in tripartite collaborations entailing: a historically disadvantaged university; a historically advantaged university and an American university. Each project will have a set number of doctoral students who will be supervised and mentored with overseas exchanges over four years. The focused disciplines for doctoral partnerships include climate change mitigation, global health, engineering education, mountain research and community engagement.

About 114 South African doctoral students will be recruited with 80% being black and 50% women staff members of 45 years or younger. Dr Green explained that each doctoral candidate should spend an appropriate amount of time at their partner university in the United States, “when maximum benefit will be derived from the experience abroad. Students should also benefit from teaching development and research development opportunities during this period.”

Currently about 44% of permanent instructional and research academics in South Africa hold PhDs and the country produces 2500 PhD graduates a year against the National Development Plan’s target of 5000 per annum by 2030. While university student numbers have increased from 450 000 to more than one million since 1994, the number of academic staff has remained the same. South Africa has an aging professoriate, while there is a shortage of black and particularly women professors, specifically in the scarce skills areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Meanwhile UP’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof Cheryl de la Rey said that there needs to be a shift to inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary research and the imperative is to prepare a cohort of leaders “to help South Africa deal with the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. She said poverty alleviation is critical and universities should focus on exposing students to entrepreneurship. “We are concerned about the employment of graduates and the future of work.”

UP has been involved in the coordination of the US-SA Higher Education Network, recruitment of new members, and the creation of a strategic plan and pursuing potential funding opportunities to enable partnership projects. It will also be involved in a project with the University of the Western Cape and the University of Rutgers-Newark, that entails the development of a doctoral studies initiative for 10 students, focusing on community development and community education. It is also involved in the development of a feasibility plan for a collaborative South African doctoral programme in community education/community development. 

Prof Cheryl de la Rey, Dr Diane Parker (DHET) and Prof Kyle Farmbry at GIBS 

According to Prof Kyle Farmbry, Dean of the Graduate School-Newark at Rutgers University of Newark, New Jersey, “the act of building collaborations between South African and United States institutions will be critical as we think about the future of doctoral education and engaging future doctoral degree holders in solving some of our world’s pressing societal challenges.”

With time, more phases of the University Staff Doctoral Programme will be implemented by the Network and more scholars will be recruited. There will also be the participation of other international networks.
More information on the network may be found at 

- Author Primarashni Gower

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