12 December 2011
By Tennie Videler
I am totally excited: I am in Cape Town, South Africa to talk about Vitae and the UKRSA at their national postdoc forum. I have been reading about the higher education system in South Africa. I was surprised by some of the differences between the UK and South Africa. Anyone who has read my earlier post ‘My dad and my doctorate’ and all the fabulous comments there will know I find the differences in doctoral experiences between countries fascinating. More are surfacing now that I am talking to people.
Last year a fantastically thorough report by the Academy of Sciences South Africa on the PhD experience was published, handing me a one stop shop to find out lots. ..
There are 22 universities in South Africa, with a ‘top tier’ of five, of which one, University of Cape Town is in the ‘top 100’. Universities are divided into general, comprehensive and technological universities. In 2007 there were 1274 doctoral graduates (in the UK there were 14 500, for reference). The distribution of people over the different disciplines is different from in the UK: the largest proportion of these were in social sciences, especially education, followed by what we call biological sciences, then the humanities, then health and the number of engineers and physical scientists is in double figures only. The average age of people finishing their doctorate is just over 40, which is quite a bit older than in the UK.
Politicians have decided to increase the number of doctoral graduates five-fold in the next few years as a way to contribute to making their economy more knowledge intensive. There have been a lot of discussions these last few days about the educational pipeline into the PhD. There are a lot of problems with the education system in South Africa which depletes the potential pool of graduates. Arguably, this needs to be sorted out first….
There are concerns over the demographics of academics, as only a third have doctorates (limiting the number of potential doctoral supervisors) and in general they are ageing, white males…
The funding agencies have created postdoctoral fellowships, which they are finding hard to fill. I think this is partly due to the relatively low remuneration and other conditions: Postdocs are generally regarded as students, meaning that on the one hand they don’t pay tax but it also means they don’t necessarily have access to staff development and other opportunities. The status means they can’t do teaching/ lecturing or supervision of PhD students.
These are some headline findings of my trip so far, I’ll try to post some more…