Post­grads ur­gently need fund­ing

The fi­nanc­ing of un­der­grad­u­ate de­grees but not post­grad­u­ate is short-sighted and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Mamokgethi Phak­eng

Statis­ti­cian gen­eral Pali Le­hohla has said that ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion is the key to em­ploy­ing South Africa’s young peo­ple. How­ever, the key to grow­ing our economy is not just to put peo­ple into jobs, but to de­velop new busi­ness and pro­fes­sional sec­tors in which South Africans can ap­ply their in­ge­nu­ity to solv­ing prob­lems that can have a global ef­fect.

Most of the world has en­tered the knowl­edge economy, which con­nects peo­ple glob­ally. This is where South Africa needs to com­pete. It is also where post­grad­u­ate stu­dents can be­gin to make their mark: con­duct­ing re­search to ad­dress spe­cific ques­tions and prob­lems in health, science, en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy, com­puter science, law, busi­ness, me­dia, ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial wel­fare — to name a few sec­tors. Al­though uni­ver­si­ties im­part knowl­edge and skills to un­der­grad­u­ates, post­grad­u­ate stu­dents con­trib­ute in a very prac­ti­cal sense to the growth of our knowl­edge, economy and cul­ture.

For in­stance, hon­ours stu­dents in the Univer­sity of Cape Town’s (UCT) com­puter science department helped to de­velop a mi­croplate reader app (avail­able from Google) that al­lows tech­nol­o­gists to mea­sure sam­ples in the field us­ing their phones. This app has a range of med­i­cal and sci­en­tific uses.

In June this year, Aliki Sara­gas, a mas­ter of doc­u­men­tary arts grad­u­ate of the Cen­tre for Film and Me­dia Stud­ies, show­cased her fea­ture­length doc­u­men­tary, Strike a Rock, at the En­coun­ters In­ter­na­tional Doc­u­men­tary Film Fes­ti­val in Cape Town and at the Sh­effield In­ter­na­tional Doc­u­men­tary Film Fes­ti­val in the United King­dom. The pro­duc­tion, which fo­cuses on women in Marikana, was first con­ceived as her grad­u­a­tion film.

Maryam Fish, a PhD stu­dent at UCT, was a mem­ber of the in­ter­na­tional re­search team that iden­ti­fied the gene that causes ar­rhyth­mo­genic right ven­tri­cle car­diomy­opa­thy, a po­ten­tially fa­tal ge­netic dis­or­der that pre­dis­poses young peo­ple to car­diac ar­rest. The ground-break­ing dis­cov­ery was an­nounced in March in Cir­cu­la­tion: Car­dio­vas­cu­lar Ge­net­ics.

Earn­ing a post­grad­u­ate de­gree is also the first step to­wards de­vel­op­ing a suc­cess­ful aca­demic ca­reer — an im­por­tant area of trans­for­ma­tion in South Africa, in which black and women aca­demics re­main the mi­nor­ity.

De­spite this po­ten­tial for shap­ing the fu­ture, post­grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion re­mains un­der-re­sourced in South Africa — ac­ces­si­ble only to stu­dents from mid­dle-class back­grounds who have the fi­nan­cial re­sources to sup­port grad­u­ate stud­ies. There is a cri­sis brew­ing in post­grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion in South Africa for the same rea­son that ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion is in tur­moil now. The un­der­ly­ing is­sue is how much fi­nan­cial sup­port the gov­ern­ment will al­lo­cate to this im­por- tant ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic re­source.

Many post­grad­u­ate stu­dents face the same fi­nan­cial prob­lems as un­der­grad­u­ates. Fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is avail­able only to stu­dents earn­ing their ini­tial de­gree. So stu­dents who re­lied on NSFAS to earn their first de­gree must com­pete for a lim­ited num­ber of grants and schol­ar­ships to con­tinue their ed­u­ca­tion, no mat­ter how well they per­formed in earn­ing their ini­tial de­gree. Many of these schol­ar­ships do not suf­fi­ciently cover univer­sity fees, ma­te­ri­als, ac­com­mo­da­tion and liv­ing ex­penses.

This is short-sighted, con­sid­er­ing, first, the need to grow our lo­cal aca­demic ca­pac­ity to trans­form the univer­sity sec­tor and en­sure growth, es­pe­cially in terms of women and black pro­fes­sors; and sec­ond, the need to bring a fresh out­look to the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment hur­dles by train­ing up post­grad­u­ate stu­dents who have been raised in dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties and deeply un­der­stand the kinds of prob­lems we need to over­come as a na­tion.

The fo­cus on fi­nanc­ing only un­der­grad­u­ates lim­its the cre­ative di­ver­sity we need to ap­ply to these prob­lems.

Post­grad­u­ate stu­dents point out that the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem puts crit­i­cal ob­sta­cles in their way. These ob­sta­cles can be re­moved if the gov­ern­ment ap­plies the po­lit­i­cal will to do so. For in­stance, stu­dents who pur­sue a bachelor’s de­gree that re­quires a fourth year of study, such as busi­ness science or en­gi­neer­ing, qual­ify for NSFAS as­sis­tance, yet South African stu­dents in an hon­ours pro­gramme do not. An hon­ours de­gree should be treated with the same fi­nan­cial sup­port as that pro­vided for a fourth-year un­der­grad­u­ate pro­gramme.

The state’s main fund­ing body for post­grad­u­ate stu­dents, the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion (NRF), pro­vided only R815-mil­lion in fi­nan­cial sup­port to hon­ours, mas­ter’s and doc­toral stu­dents in 2015-2016, ac­cord­ing to its an­nual re­port for that pe­riod. In 2015, uni­ver­si­ties had 128 747 full-de­gree post­grad­u­ate stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tre for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Trust. So the to­tal NRF con­tri­bu­tion would have av­er­aged out to R6330 a stu­dent, for a pro­gramme of study that may cost 10 times that amount, not in­clud­ing other costs such as hous­ing. (By con­trast, in the same pe­riod NSFAS dis­bursed R9.3-bil­lion to 418 949 univer­sity, tech­ni­cal and vo­ca­tional stu­dents. This av­er­ages out to R22 198 a stu­dent.) In ad­di­tion, post­grad­u­ate stu­dents are of­ten not el­i­gi­ble for ser­vices that are pro­vided for free to un­der­grad­u­ates, such as health­care. I know of one promis­ing post­grad­u­ate stu­dent who is de­vot­ing crit­i­cal study time to wash­ing cars to raise funds.

Sup­port from the NRF is of­ten paid late in the aca­demic year, putting the stu­dent re­cip­i­ents in fi­nan­cial jeop­ardy. UCT is con­sid­er­ing how to cover the fund­ing gap in sit­u­a­tions where the fu­ture pay­ment of a bur­sary or schol­ar­ship is con­firmed. Other in­sti­tu­tions, such as the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Natal, al­low for a re­bate on the re­pay­ment of a stu­dent loan when the de­gree is awarded be­fore the nor­mal re­quired time.

The NRF is not the only source of fund­ing for post­grad­u­ate stu­dents. Re­search in health, science and tech­nol­ogy in par­tic­u­lar re­ceives fund­ing from a num­ber of out­side sources, in­clud­ing the pri­vate sec­tor. In such cases, the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor for a project can bud­get for post­grad­u­ate stu­dents to join the project.

In April this year the Black Post­grad­u­ate Stu­dent Cau­cus at UCT asked to meet me on this is­sue and other griev­ances. I es­tab­lished a task team to ex­am­ine their con­cerns and to make rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing what UCT could do to im­prove sup­port to post­grad­u­ate stu­dents. In­di­vid­ual uni­ver­si­ties have lim­ited re­sources for this pur­pose. In 2016, for in­stance, UCT con­trib­uted R23 693 941 to post­grad­u­ate stu­dents at the univer­sity.

The lion’s share of fund­ing comes from the ad­di­tional ef­forts of de­part­ments and in­di­vid­ual aca­demics in var­i­ous fac­ul­ties. Not every univer­sity has the re­sources to pro­vide such sup­port. Even UCT, one of the bet­ter­re­sourced uni­ver­si­ties, is not able to meet the vast need.

Dif­fi­cult choices need to be made. It would make sense to sup­port fewer post­grad­u­ate stu­dents fully with the avail­able fund­ing rather than to spread small al­lo­ca­tions to more stu­dents who will still strug­gle to meet all their ex­penses. For the good of the coun­try and its in­flu­ence in Africa and the world, the gov­ern­ment needs to give post­grad­u­ate fund­ing its im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion.

This chal­lenge we face is a mag­nif­i­cent op­por­tu­nity to un­lock and sup­port the bril­liance of young post­grad­u­ate tal­ent in South Africa, but left unat­tended spells a sad loss of hu­man po­ten­tial and the deep con­tri­bu­tion these schol­ars could have made in South Africa.

It would make sense to sup­port fewer post­grad­u­ate stu­dents fully rather than spread­ing small al­lo­ca­tions to more

Graphic: JOHN McCANN

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