Higher Education Monitor 7: Postgraduate studies in South Africa - a statistical profile

CHE > Media and Publications > Higher Education Monitor > Higher Education Monitor 7: Postgraduate studies in South Africa - a statistical profile
March, 2009

Executive Summary: High-level Trends 


The production of university graduates - and especially postgraduate students - is an essential component of the national system of innovation of modern industrialised societies. Such graduates have acquired the necessary knowledge and skills that underpin the modern knowledge economy and are able to produce new knowledge. In a globalised world their skills are in high demand, whether they are in Engineering, Informtion and Communication Technology, Medicine or the Social Sciences and Humanities. It is generally recognised that South Africa does not have sufficient numbers of highly skilled people in most professions, hence the priority given to a host of initiatives by state departments, focused on fast-tracking skills development. The greatest shortage is at postgraduate level and recent initiatives, such as those by the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation to accelerate the production of PhDs in the system, target this reality. High international demand for South African graduates, together with the continuing brain drain of professionals, provide an urgent imperative to increase the production of postgraduate students in order for the country to remain competitive and to be able to generate knowledge that is responsive to a wide range of societal needs. In this report we present the most salient findings of a comprehensive statistical analysis of the state of postgraduate studies in South Africa. The results presented here reaffirm the pressing need to prioritise the support and funding of greater numbers of postgraduate students and to ensure that there is a clear, easily-accessible and sought-after transition from undergraduate to postgraduate studies at our higher education institutions.

This executive summary is organised around six main themes:

  • Growth in enrolments and graduations
  • Pile-up effects
  • Completion rates
  • The burden of supervision
  • Demographics
  • Participation rates.

The context

In order to understand the more recent postgraduate enrolment and graduation trends, some history of the higher education sector in South Africa and general growth trends is required. As Figure 1 shows, the total number of enrolments and graduates almost doubled in the 16-year period between 1990 and 2005. However, the growth patterns of enrolment and graduation are very different. Enrolments grew steadily between 1990 and 1996, after which they declined for four years, before growing again quite significantly between 2000 and 2004. The decline in 2005 is a potential source of concern. The graduation trend is much more consistent - although there was a slight 'dip' between 1997 and 1999.

A closer look at the graduation trends for undergraduate students, lower postgraduate (Diploma and Honours) and upper postgraduate (Master's and Doctoral) students (see Figure 2) provides better insight into these general trends and shows that there was consistent growth over this period. Although there was a significant decline in the number of lower postgraduate students between 1996 and 2001, this can possibly be explained by the introduction of two-year structured Master's (mostly taught) programmes at many universities during this period. These were viewed as a more attractive option (than a separate Honours and Thesis Master's) by many potential postgraduate students.