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The Council on Higher Education’s review of doctoral qualifications: It’s the attributes that count

By Narend Baijnath 13 February 2020

(Illustrative image | source: YWAD / ya-webdesign.com)

The Council on Higher Education is confident that the review of doctoral qualifications will not only be of the highest academic quality, but will also be of scholarly benefit.

On 10 February 2020, Daily Maverick published an op-ed by Emeritus Professor Ken Harley, who raises what he calls “worrying trends” in the Council on Higher Education’s (CHE) impending national review of doctoral qualifications awarded in South Africa. He bases his argument on selected aspects of three recently published council documents: the Qualification Standard for Doctoral Degrees; the Manual for National Review of Doctoral Qualifications, and the Self-Evaluation Report (SER) template for institutional response.

His article includes fleeting references to some major conceptual issues relating to the nature of research associated with doctoral studies and their implications for quality, issues that call for a more complex discussion than the length of this article allows. What follows are brief responses to the views he expresses that are of the greatest significance to the council’s approach, through the national review, to addressing its mandate of monitoring quality assurance in higher education.

On the role of the National Research Foundation (NRF):

It is true that the NRF has a vested interest in the outcome, in terms of its own mandate, that includes value for money. The NRF was adamant from the start that the primary focus should be on the quality and ultimate value of research production, not on any extraneous factor such as quantity of produce or orchestrated utility. Furthermore, the NRF left the development of the standard, manual and SER template entirely in the hands of the CHE.

On instrumentalism:

The Preamble makes a case that a dynamic future society and labour market needs doctoral graduates who have precisely been equipped to be curiosity-driven. That’s not instrumentalism. It is difficult to find evidence in any of the documents referred to that suggests an emphasis on anything other than the quality of graduateness, in terms of research experience and research value. There is also nothing that points to, or even implies, a bias towards “clockwork” rather than “organic and non-linear” views of the world and of research. The approach is in effect saying that doctoral graduates are useful to the country only when they have been properly inducted into rigorous research. That is quite different from saying that doctoral graduates need “relevant” skills to be useful in the labour market; that would be instrumentalism.

Intrinsic and extrinsic qualities:

Intrinsic qualities are equated with the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level descriptor. Extrinsic qualities are equated with the qualification standard. They are, in fact, closely aligned; the graduate attributes in the standard were articulated within the parameters of the level descriptor (which applies to all level 10 programmes, whether qualifications or short courses); the standard adapted the level descriptor to suit the specific features of the doctorate.

Preamble and rationale:

This section of the standard is intentionally descriptive. It does not form part of the normative section of the standard. Therefore, it makes sense for it to refer to context and time. That does not mean that the normative section (Purpose, Graduate Attributes, Contexts and Conditions for Supervision and Assessment) is context- or time-bound. The Framework for Standards Development emphasises the point that a qualification standard needs regular reappraisal to ensure that it keeps in touch with intellectual, social, cultural and ethical developments and innovations.

The standard says nothing about philosophies of research:

The use of the plural term “philosophies” is the very reason that the standard says nothing about them. It recognises, instead, that there is a variety of conceptual and theoretical approaches to research, influenced by many factors including fields of study. To refer to any of them stands in danger of excluding others and implying an unwanted philosophical bias.

Graduate attributes in the standard and in the SER:

It is correct that the former focuses on what the graduate can do, and the latter on institutional policies and procedures for ensuring the attainment of the attributes. The Standards Development Reference Group adopted this approach for specific reasons. Graduate attributes are by nature future-oriented: they designate the ongoing goals towards which well-designed doctoral programmes should be designed. The SER template, on the other hand, is past-oriented, in the sense that it can only assess what has been done towards those dynamic goals. So, the standard recognises that there is no way the review could assess final accomplishment of the graduate attributes; the template provides the next best thing, with the dynamic goals firmly in mind.

Another point to bear in mind is that, whereas all previous CHE national reviews have been reviews of programmes, this review is a review of an entire qualification. That point is made clear in the manual. In essence, every doctoral thesis is a different programme and evaluating each thesis, or even a reasonably representative selection of them, would be both impossible and an intrusion on the institutional responsibility for supervision and examination. It was agreed that institutional policies and procedures would serve as proxy for the quality of individual graduate achievement. Review panels would have the discretion to request examples of theses should they deem it appropriate.

Ominous’ statistics:

It is difficult to know why a request for statistics should be regarded as ominous. They are intended to reflect some (but certainly not all, and not the core) aspects of the ways in which institutional policies and procedures are aligned with the qualification standard, particularly supervision and assessment.

Menacing’ signs of meliorism:

“Meliorism” has multiple connotations, depending on its users (who include Rousseau, Dewey, James). There is no assumption that the national review would (or could, or should) expect to lead to perfectibility in doctoral studies. However, as the Framework and the Introduction to the doctoral standard make clear, standards play a role not only in assuring quality, but also in developing quality in higher education. It would be strange if quality development were to be considered “menacing”, for it is unclear who, or what, is being menaced.

If the CHE’s review is itself of poor quality… let’s hope that scholarship and good professional judgement can mitigate the CHE’s shortcomings’:

It must be emphasised that the qualification standard, the manual and the SER were developed and endorsed, in the first instance, not by the CHE but by an independent group of academic experts. The CHE approved the documents only after reference group consensus following public comment. The review itself will be conducted by panels of independent academic experts. To suggest that the process and outcome may be of poor quality would be an indictment not only, or chiefly, of the CHE, but of the academic community itself which has been actively involved in doctoral supervision and examination.

Taking into account the fact that the production of the qualification standard, the review manual and the SER, and the review process itself, including institutional site visits, are assigned to panels of academic experts with wide relevant qualifications and expertise, and who are independent of both the CHE and NRF, the council is confident that the forthcoming national review will be of high academic quality, that it will recognise and account for diverse philosophical views on the nature of research, and that the outcomes of the review will be of benefit to the ongoing development of doctoral studies in South Africa. DM

Professor Narend Baijnath is CEO of the Council on Higher Education.

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