ASSAf Study on Postgraduate Research Training in Engineering

ASSAf Study – Postgraduate Engineering Key for Future Growth – Media Release

Postgraduate engineering training and research to position South Africa in the high-technology manufacturing sector are critical and government is urged to develop such a vision, and the higher education sector to support it.


This is stated in a new consensus study entitled Status of Postgraduate Research Training in Engineering in South Africa released by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) today.  The study was undertaken on behalf of the Department of Science and Technology and aims to document and assess the status of postgraduate research training in engineering in South Africa regarding possible systemic challenges or shortcomings.

Some of the key challenges found are the low numbers of university staff with PhDs, limited supervisory capacity, the lack of critical mass in some engineering fields and the low participation rates of women in postgraduate engineering.

The study builds on an earlier Academy study, the PhD Study, published in 2010, which gave a comprehensive overview of, inter alia, the numbers of doctorates being produced, the demographic characteristics, supervisory capacity and how to escalate the production across all disciplinary fields. As the field that produced the lowest share of doctorates and where the utilisation of skills obtained was the lowest of all disciplinary fields, with over 20% of those surveyed stating that they rarely or never used the skills obtained in the doctorate in the workplace, a follow-up study is relevant.

The latest study found that a perspective on postgraduate engineering training and research is inextricably linked to the vision of South Africa in terms of its regional and global positioning and competitiveness.

The development and promotion of such a vision is primarily the responsibility of government.

South Africa is not well positioned to be competitive in low-technology industries and should rather focus on high-technology manufacturing and service industries. A well-educated workforce will be required to support such a transition. The reticence of industry, which is presently predominantly positioned at the low to medium-technology levels to support the growth of postgraduate education is understandable. The profit motive of industry is paramount and engineers with postgraduate qualifications are viewed as unaffordable and unnecessary. A longer-term view that positions South Africa for future high-technology industries and underscores the value of postgraduate qualifications should be promoted. The mechanism to develop this vision to position South Africa as a high-technology country should be the joint responsibility of the DST and the Department of Trade and Industry.

“Technology is changing rapidly and it is not good practice to match education and training

with current perceived needs for the near future. The focus should rather be on developing

and equipping students to function well in a rapidly changing technological environment”, the report states.

Benchmarking South Africa against eight comparator countries on efficiency and effectiveness of postgraduate engineering training, South Africa scored relatively poorly across almost all measures. In terms of effectiveness, the highest demand for engineers seems to be in the Electrical, Electronic and Telecommunications Engineering; Civil Engineering; and Mining Engineering fields. The supply profile does not match the demand profile in all areas.

However, there is a demand for (and shortage of) engineers in all engineering fields, based on very low engineer unemployment rates. South Africa ranks relatively poorly in terms of the World Economic Forum’s Higher Education & Training Score and has the lowest number of engineering graduates per million population (265) across the comparator countries.

The ten recommendations of the report are:

Recommendation 1: The creation of new postgraduate engineering programmes at additional institutions is not currently supported. Existing postgraduate programmes should rather be strengthened and supported taking due consideration of the scarce resources, both human and physical, in South Africa.

Recommendation 2: Strengthen inter-institutional collaboration among HEIs and also national

institutions in order to improve critical mass and avoid potentially wasteful duplications. Postgraduate education and training are directly linked to research foci and strengths at the various institutions. There are a large number of research groups at individual institutions, yet only a few are inter-institutional in nature.

Recommendation 3: An evaluation of the research productivity of engineering research groups in terms of critical mass, postgraduate student output, peer-reviewed publication outputs and patents, as well as their alignment with the imperatives of the National Development Plan (NDP) should be undertaken to guide future investments from the DST.

Recommendation 4: Promote the involvement of women in postgraduate engineering programmes to ensure inclusivity and full utilisation of the entire population’s skills.

Recommendation 5: Investigate ways to make academic careers in engineering disciplines more attractive by aligning remuneration and benefits, facilities and support with that offered

in government and the private sector.

Recommendation 6: Increase the internationalisation of engineering education by relaxing immigration requirements and encouraging international PhD graduates to stay on in postdoctoral and teaching staff positions.

Recommendation 7: Take urgent steps to increase the number and proportion of university engineering staff with PhDs, while simultaneously addressing the need for a demographic shift

from a predominantly white male cohort to a more representative faculty.

Recommendation 8: Develop strategies for the reindustrialisation of South Africa and use the planning and implementation of such strategies as vehicles to stimulate a common vision and cooperation between government, industry and engineering educators and institutions.

Recommendation 9: Government must take the initiative to develop a vision and Implementation plan for postgraduate engineering training and education that positions South Africa to be competitive in high-technology manufacturing and service industries.

Recommendation 10: HEIs must support the transition to high-technology manufacturing through their postgraduate degree programmes.