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NRF avoids ‘drastic reduction’ in postgrad funding by deferring other spending

Drop in NRF grant numbers to measure hundreds, not thousands as suggested earlier

South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation has addressed widespread fears that budget cuts related to Covid-19 could result in thousands of postgraduates going unfunded this year. 

In fresh data shared with Research Professional, the DSI says the National Research Foundation has cut its target for postgraduate grants issued in 2020/21 by 540, around 5 per cent of the total grants for which it had originally budgeted. 

The majority are PhD and masters grants—which have been revised down by 250 and 258 grants respectively. Honours grants, which are the most numerous, have been reduced by a mere 32.

This might bring some relief to researchers after the DSI, in a briefing to Parliament’s science and technology portfolio committee on 15 July, signalled that a third of its PhD and postgraduate grants through the NRF “and other relevant entities” could be lost as a result of pandemic budget cuts. 

In documents provided to the committee, the DSI said its overall targets would drop from 3,100 to 2,000 PhD grants this year, while postgraduate bursaries would be cut from 9,300 to 6,000. 

However, after questions were raised about these numbers in the wake of the briefing, the DSI wrote to Research Professional providing new, revised numbers for the NRF only. “The current… targets for honours degrees have been revised from 4,357 to 4,325, doctoral degrees from 2,598 to 2,348 and master’s degrees from 3,840 to 3,582,” it said. 

The DSI said the NRF had avoided “a drastic reduction in the total number of funded postgraduate students” by deferred spending on “certain non-critical infrastructure projects” and by cancelling events. 

However, the DSI did not say whether cuts to postgraduate grants at the “other relevant entities” mentioned in its submission to Parliament would mirror those at the NRF, or whether they would be more drastic.