The Council on Larger Schooling’s ‘Nationwide Overview of Doctoral in South Africa’ begs the age-old query: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – who will guard the guards themselves? High quality analysis can take time and it might be unlucky if universities have been, in future, to really feel the necessity to safeguard their pursuits by encouraging doctoral college students to deal with what is well ‘doable’ relatively than what’s intriguing.
The web site of the statutory high quality assurance physique for increased schooling, the Council on Larger Schooling (CHE), records that: “On the 2nd of February 2017, the Council on Larger Schooling launched the Nationwide Critiques [sic] of Doctoral Research, it held its first ‘Stakeholder Consultative Discussion board’ on the Nationwide Analysis Basis (NRF) in Pretoria.”
This announcement was adopted by two years of planning for the evaluate of all doctoral throughout all universities. Because the evaluate was initially scheduled for completion in April 2020, universities can anticipate numerous evaluate exercise this yr.
The story that follows tracks developments to the current. It’s a troubling story, as we will see. On the outset although, to the credit score of the CHE, the doctoral evaluate course of in reality bought off to an excellent begin. Consistent with the precept of peer evaluate, the “Qualification Customary for Doctoral Levels, November 2018” (the qualification commonplace), was compiled with the enter of a reference group of 19 eminent professors from a consultant vary of universities. An earlier draft had additionally gone out for public remark. We thus have credible benchmarks for the evaluate, established by way of a reputable course of.
In offering benchmarks for assessing high quality, the qualification commonplace follows a transparent logic comprising:
- Objective of the doctoral qualification;
- Graduate attributes that manifest that function; and
- The contexts and circumstances for the evaluation of these attributes.
The qualification commonplace was adopted by the CHE’s “Institutional Self-Analysis Report Template, April” (the SER template). That is supported by an additional CHE doc, the “Nationwide Overview Guide: Doctoral ”. Overview procedures are easy sufficient. Utilizing the SER template, every establishment develops a self-evaluation report of its doctoral ; a peer evaluate panel conducts a web site go to to interrogate the establishments’ claims of compliance with the benchmarks; establishments then obtain a report from the CHE. If the report identifies shortcomings, the establishment is required to submit an enchancment plan to the council.
Maybe it’s the familiarity of this fully reputable background that explains why there’s not been a lot public touch upon a evaluate that may have main implications for the repute and standing of every college. With few exceptions, remark has been usually supportive, with maybe gentle reservations about problems with implementation.
Anyway, in fact, all people agrees on the significance of the doctorate. It’s probably the most prestigious and most generously state-subsidised qualification on the apex of the upper schooling pyramid, so why not evaluate it? And as Sioux McKenna further points out, poor high quality doctoral schooling also can have damaging implications past the doctorate itself: It may possibly set the scene for the character of data creation and dissemination in all the college.
Nevertheless it’s time to take McKenna’s argument to its subsequent logical step. If the CHE’s evaluate is itself of poor high quality, it may possibly have damaging implications for all the increased schooling sector. It’s time to ask the age-old query: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – who will guard the guards themselves?
Let’s start with the traits and function of the doctoral diploma.
The CHE Qualification Customary confirms that by way of nationwide regulation, the doctoral diploma is a degree 10 qualification carrying 360 credit score factors on the Nationwide Framework (NQF). Within the case of a doctoral diploma awarded fully by analysis – and that is the sort provided at most universities – all 360 credit score factors are allotted to the thesis. The thesis should current a big and authentic contribution on the frontiers of data. It has all the time been understood that the diploma is awarded after a pupil’s thesis has been authorised by way of a rigorous technique of examination. There is no such thing as a extra to it than that.
To this time-honoured intrinsic PhD function as a tutorial analysis endeavour consistent with the NQF’s degree descriptor, the qualification commonplace provides a brand new layer of extrinsic function within the type of graduate attributes which might be deeply private . Graduates ought to have the abilities, predisposition and understanding codes to allow them to function custodians and stewards of their area of experience; have the ability to adapt to altering contexts; act as brokers of mental development at ranges from the native to worldwide, and so forth. These attributes have relevance to the position graduates are anticipated to play on the planet of labor.
There may be good sense in socialising doctoral college students into communities of follow. Many universities have developed progressive supervisory practices that do precisely this. It’s also true that worldwide requirements such because the 2015 UK Quality Code for Higher Education embody the skilled growth of scholars as an essential criterion for doctoral high quality.
Nevertheless, in contrast with its worldwide counterparts, the CHE qualification commonplace’s model of scholars’ skilled growth has a notable distinctiveness that may be traced to the explanation why the Nationwide Analysis Basis proposed a nationwide evaluate within the first place. In line with the CHE Guide (p4): “In fulfilling its mandate of Human Capital Improvement (HCD), the NRF has a number of funding devices that help the doctoral diploma. Nevertheless, in making these investments, the NRF must be assured that Doctoral provided by South African private and non-private increased schooling establishments meet nationwide high quality requirements for Doctoral levels.”
In different phrases, the NRF wanted to ensure that the PhD was an instrument match for its personal human capital function. In line with this, the qualification commonplace has a “Preamble and Rationale” highlighting the necessity for “a gradual provide of high-level new data for innovation and sustained progress”. Imperatives of the Division of Science and Know-how’s “Ten 12 months Innovation Plan 2008 – 2018” and the 2012 Nationwide Improvement Plan are cited.
By no means thoughts that analysis has significantly questioned human capital concept so beloved by Unesco and the OECD. By making specific the extrinsic functions of doctoral research on the subject of nationwide insurance policies at this second of our historical past, the qualification commonplace infuses our understanding of doctoral high quality with a dose of instrumentalism.
However instrumentalism has a spot of honour in commissioned analysis and, to a lesser extent, in aside from the doctorate. The doctorate has its personal integrity. It is a chance for particular person college students to discover the world, and reality is completely different to usefulness.
Genuinely high-level authentic analysis has additionally moved past the Newtonian world that noticed the universe as rationalistic, deterministic and of clockwork order. Complexity theories have emerged for the reason that publication of Thomas Kuhn’s e-book, The Construction of Scientific Revolutions nearly 60 years in the past. Kuhn discredited the concept of science creating by way of regular, incremental analysis steps. Actual progress comes about not in “regular” science, however in “revolutionary” phases of science. When scientists encounter anomalies in present theories (usually fortuitously), communities of specialists within the area are plunged into crises of uncertainty, turmoil and angst. It’s these revolutionary phases – such because the transition from Newtonian mechanics to quantum physics – that represent conceptual breakthroughs (Naughton, 2012).
Excessive-level analysis is extra more likely to have an effect when it explores what Donald Rumsfeld famously known as the “known unknowns”: the issues we all know we don’t know. If analysis does that, we have now an opportunity of studying concerning the “unknown knowns”: the issues we don’t know that we all know, just like the long-term traits and anomalies quietly effervescent away behind the scenes. Such a non-instrumental method, primarily based on a view of the world as natural and non-linear relatively than clockwork, requires researcher curiosity in exploring uncertainties.
It’s a pity the qualification commonplace says nothing about philosophies of analysis. As a result of it’s so firmly grounded in instrumentalism, it appears to raised serve the reason for the NRF and the CHE relatively than the true long-term high quality of the doctorate. This qualification commonplace can haven’t any future anyway: it’s too context- and time-bound within the politics and insurance policies of present-day South Africa.
However again to the current. The layer of extrinsic function within the high quality benchmarks creates a direct downside for universities now finishing their self-evaluations. If nationwide regulation requires that each one 360 credit score factors for the doctorate are assigned to the thesis, how then ought to a college present proof of compliance with a layer of non-public graduate attributes past the thesis? The place does college students’ socialisation into communities of follow slot in? At current, it can’t be a legalistic requirement for the award of the diploma.
By its very nature, doctoral schooling is a person expertise. In follow, skilled growth alternatives for college kids range drastically throughout disciplines, departments and colleges. Some college students might benefit from alternatives universities present for socialisation into epistemic communities of follow, however others – notably these whose private circumstances don’t allow such luxuries – will merely bury themselves of their analysis.
Maybe the framers of the qualification commonplace meant a “mushy” interpretation of the extrinsic qualification function. In any occasion, it’s the job of the handbook and the SER template to interpret benchmarks and to information institutional responses.
But when the compilers of those paperwork have been conscious of the conundrum introduced by the twofold function of the PhD, they don’t handle it in any respect. They don’t even cut back the descriptive narrative within the CHE qualification commonplace function assertion to the sorts of analytic classes that make templates helpful devices. For instance, they may have no less than categorised the twofold function of the PhD by way of “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” qualities; and people categorisations might then have supplied a foundation for pointers in respect of relative weighting and so forth. As a substitute, the SER template merely passes the buck by referring universities to the CHE qualification commonplace.
Issues worsen after we shift our gaze to the straightforward mechanics of evaluate implementation. In translating the logic of the qualification commonplace into an SER template, the CHE presents universities with confusion in respect of two of its three strands of logic: Graduate Attributes and Qualification Objective.
The qualification commonplace explains Graduate Attributes thus:
“The aim and degree of the qualification can have been achieved when the next attributes are evident. The attributes are assessed throughout the context of the Objective of the qualification.” Attributes listed beneath this clarification cowl 9 areas of data and expertise, every starting with an achievement-based assertion equivalent to, “The graduate demonstrates …”, or, “The graduate exhibits proof of …”.
Then again, the SER template says:
“Describe and consider how your establishment prepares candidates to realize the graduate attributes (data and expertise) set out within the qualification commonplace for Doctoral Levels.”
On the easiest degree of what phrases imply, achievement-based proof in respect of what graduates can do, or exhibit (as within the qualification commonplace), is completely different to the means by way of which a qualification is designed to develop the sought-after attributes (as within the SER template). Ought to establishments take their cue from the qualification commonplace, or from the SER template?
Towards that background of confusion, the SER template concludes relatively ominously with tables on drop-out statistics, time-to-degree statistics and commencement charges. Let’s hope that peer evaluate judgements will not be clouded by such indicators of effectivity. High quality analysis can take time and it might be unlucky if universities have been, in future, to really feel the necessity to safeguard their pursuits by encouraging doctoral college students to deal with what is well “doable” relatively than what’s intriguing.
In conclusion, at this stage we don’t but know what sense universities will make of all this; and whether or not the CHE will then have ample frequent understanding throughout establishments to allow it to attract legitimate conclusions throughout the sector. So much will depend on the peer reviewers who will do the location go to rounds later this yr. Let’s hope that scholarship and good skilled judgement can mitigate the CHE’s shortcomings.
However from what we have now seen up to now, there are menacing indicators of a phenomenon known as “meliorism” (when you’re English); or the extra descriptive “verschlimmbesserung” (when you’re German). Both approach, it implies that the doctoral evaluate is on track for an end result that’s more likely to subvert its personal noble intentions of assuring – and creating – high quality.
How did we get to this unpromising state of affairs? All CHE documentation is authorised by its personal statutory our bodies. If that’s not alarming sufficient throughout the context of our query about who guards the guardians, contemplate too that universities have been knowledgeable that: “The required evaluate devices have been developed and authorised with the help and shut involvement of the Nationwide Analysis Basis.” DM
Ken Harley is Emeritus Professor, College of KwaZulu-Natal. He’s a former Head of the College of Schooling and Interim Dean on the College of Natal/KwaZulu-Natal. He was editor of the Journal of Schooling for 12 years; supervisor of the CHE’s Nationwide Trainer Schooling Overview; Crew Chief of the EU-funded HIV Pilot Challenge in Trainer Schooling; and as a marketing consultant, he has carried out 11 evaluations of funded Open Schooling Useful resource (OER) tasks, primarily in East Africa and Ghana. He’s co-editor of a COL/UNESCO e-book on OER.