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Most black postgrads in South Africa are from abroad

More African students than ever are enrolled in doctoral programmes at universities in South Africa. But the overall number hides a secret.

African postgraduate students now outnumber white postgrads in the country’s universities, Nico Cloete from South Africa’s Centre for Higher Education Transformation told a meeting on PhD training in Pretoria on 28 October. This is the result of a remarkable 800 per cent increase in total black African enrolments in postgraduate degrees since 1995, he said.

But at PhD level the proportion of black African enrolments is still only 14 per cent of the total, despite making up two-thirds of the student body at the country’s universities.

What is more, most black Africans at South Africa’s universities aren’t nationals of the country. In 2011 only about a third of the black African PhD students were South African nationals. The rest hailed from other African countries.

“Nationalists would say this is bad,” Cloete said, but he regarded mobility of African researchers as a positive sign.

Another positive development is that the ‘historically disadvantaged’ universities—which traditionally catered for black South Africans—have significantly increased PhD production in recent years. These include the University of Fort Hare and the University of the Western Cape.

South Africa produces 1,500 PhDs every year. However, this is far too low by international standards, said Johan Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University.

The South African government plans to increase this number to 5,000 students per year by 2030. However, according to Mouton, the country doesn’t have enough PhD supervisors to meet this target.

Another challenge is the length of time South Africa PhD students take to graduate. About half the candidates take seven years to finish, and the average PhD graduate is 41 years old.

Mouton said the time to completion and the supervision challenges would need to be addressed in order for the government to meet its ambitious target.