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SA needs PhDs from rest of Africa to hit targets, experts say

Image: Dave Herholz [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

South Africa will reach its PhD targets only if it lets candidates from the rest of the continent swell its numbers, researchers from the country’s Centre for Higher Education Transformation have argued in a recently published book chapter.

However, this supply might dwindle, they write, due to tighter immigration rules and an unwelcoming environment for foreigners.

“The simple reality is that if the South African higher education system wants even remotely to achieve the target of 5,000 or more PhD graduates per annum, then the system will have to enrol and graduate more students – from South Africa, the rest of Africa and the rest of the world,” the authors write.

The article, by Nico Cloete, Charles Sheppard and Tracy Bailey, appears as a chapter in CHET’s ‘Knowledge production and contradictory functions in African Higher Education’ book that was published in April.

In order for the country to meet its grandiose targets of having 100,000 PhDs by 2030, it needs to produce 5,000 PhDs per year. In 2012, the country’s institutions managed only 1,878.

The authors found that the fastest-growing group of PhD candidates in South Africa came from other African countries. In 2012, a quarter of the 14,000 PhD students enrolled were Africans from outside South Africa.

Between 2000 and 2012, the number of African PhD candidates from outside South Africa grew three-and-a half-times faster than enrolment of South Africans. In 2012, three countries—Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya—made up 41 per cent of the international PhD graduates in the country.

But despite depending on the rest of Africa for meeting its targets, some South African policies currently risk alienating students and academic staff from the continent, the authors write.

They argue though that despite the country being a “bargain” for African PhD candidates compared to other international higher education markets, attracting them to the country can be difficult. “The South African immigration policy relating to foreign academics and foreign skills has become ambiguous and uncoordinated,” they write.

The authors also point to the danger of “middle-class xenophobia”. They write that the black middle-class in South Africa might try to freeze out African PhD candidates because the degree is a gateway to competitive and lucrative jobs. “While the method is much more genteel, the impulse is no different from the township attacks and looting of foreigners’ businesses,” they warn.