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Unisa set to embark on national doctoral review process

Unisa is preparing itself for a National Doctoral Review (NDR), which is a review of its doctoral qualifications to be conducted by the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The purpose of the review process is to enable Unisa to evaluate its offerings in relation to a national standard for the qualification.

The NDR is an important milestone for any education institution. The amount of effort and commitment that goes into its preparation can be perceived as insurmountable, yet the rigour with which it was being approached proves otherwise. The CHE will be visiting Unisa from 24 to 28 August 2020.

The preparation of the Self-Evaluation Report (SER) involved a critical scrutiny of institutional systems and mechanisms that ensure that the offerings of the institution fulfil the requirements of the doctoral standards and a quality arrangement that Unisa expects in order to safeguard the quality of outcomes in the qualification.

The exercise has given the university a momentous task of engaging with academics, researchers, doctoral students and alumni in a way that has permeated throughout the institutional structures and has essentially been extended to regional centres with the objective of illuminating the student voice in the process.

History and scope of Unisa’s doctoral qualifications

Unisa has a long history of offering doctoral qualifications. The March 2001 announcement by the Department of Education released the government’s National Plan for Higher Education and bestowed a status for the new Unisa as a single, dedicated distance education institution. The new university was a result of a merger of Unisa, Technikon South Africa (TSA) and the Vista University Distance Education Centre (VUDEC). The merger resulted in a growth of student numbers at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Most of the doctoral degrees originated from the old Unisa and the merger resulted in the alignment of qualifications from TSA and VUDEC, which were referred to as legacy institutions.

Unisa has a well-established and extensive programme of doctoral degrees across all colleges with the first recorded doctoral degree in 1969, the Doctoral Degree in Business Leadership. To date, the institution has 75 accredited active doctoral programmes based on the 2018 Programme and Qualification Mix (PQM), 14 of which have qualifiers. Twenty-eight of these doctoral programmes are currently in the teach-out phase. Unisa is the biggest contributor of access to doctoral offerings with 2 372 doctoral students, which is the highest number in South Africa currently.

The National Planning Commission’s (NPC) National Development Plan (NDP) (2012) estimated that South Africa needed 100 PhDs per one million of the population but that "South Africa is not on track to meet these projections deemed necessary for transformation and high skills growth. The requirement is that higher education institutions (HEIs) must produce 5 000 doctorates a year for the period 2012 to 2030; this amounts to about 210 doctorates per institution for each of the 24 HEIs." For the period 2012 to 2018, Unisa graduated 829 doctorates for the cohort that entered between 2010 and 2016, an average of about 130 graduates per year; this is a significant contribution though it falls short of the standard set in the NDP, and this is a limitation that is alluded to in the NDP due to resource scarcity.

Assuring quality in the doctoral cycle

Quality is maintained and sustained across the doctoral cycle from the recruitment and selection of the candidate. The university has systems for processing the application, approval of research focus area, selection of supervisor(s), acceptance of research proposal, assessment of student research work, and acceptance, including the number of research support in different phases of the doctoral journey. There are research committees at a departmental, college, and institutional level that assure quality of the processes, which include the selection of supervisors and examiners who are finally approved by Senate. These quality assurance measures are available from application through to graduation. Unisa aspires towards quality and thoroughness in the doctoral journey.

Zone Mdledle, Quality Assurance Practitioner at the university, says that from the review, Unisa's institutional quality assurance arrangements ensure proper preparation of future researchers and their likely research output. She adds that "we are also hoping that the rigorous evaluation by the review panel will provide the institution with strategies for improving the doctoral quality assurance arrangements."

* By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020-04-09 00:00:00.0