Human Capital Development & Science Engagement: NRF briefing; NIHSS on its mandate and funding of postgraduate students

Higher Education, Science and Technology

03 June 2020
Chairperson: Mr P Mpulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology, 3 June 2020

The Committee was briefed by the National Skills Fund (NSF) on Human Capital Development & Science Engagement, the National Research Fund (NRF), and the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) on its mandate and funding of postgraduate students.

The NSF, on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the budget and its skills development interventions, reported that it was funding + 59 000 learners for education and training for on-going learning programmes. There was a plan to increase the number of beneficiaries to be funded to 60 000 for the 2020/21 financial year. Current contractual commitments amounted to R10, 214 billion over the medium term for beneficiaries and PSET improvement interventions. Members were disappointed to hear that the NSF’s income was projected to decline by R2.53 billion (a 56% decline) in the 2020/21 financial year and by a total of R5.97 billion (a 42% decline) over the medium term due to COVID-19. Job losses and the implementation of salary cuts by companies were the resultant actions.

In answer to whether beneficiaries of the NSF skills interventions would continue to receive their stipends during the lockdown period, Members heard that stipends would still be issued however; this meant that there was a projected increase by R620 million in response to COVID-19 to make provision for the additional stipend payment to learners. The Committee asked if the NRF does anything to assist the students it helps to acquire qualifications. ‘What happens when they have finished their qualifications’? ‘Do they then have to fend for themselves afterwards’ Members expressed concern about decolonisation and preserving indigenous knowledge and asked what the NRF was doing to preserve this kind of knowledge; if the institute has done any work on the proposal by students in 2015/16 on the decolonisation of higher education, and ‘what has been done so far to address this’?

The over-arching concern for Members was on funding prompting questions such as how confident the different government entities were in maintaining the funding that they had this year with an economy that was set to shed 10% of it and with increasing demands on both the economy and on the health sector especially since it is hard to know the exact impact that this will have on government. Further on funding, Members asked about the value of the scholarships given to PhD students and for a comparison between the NRF and the NIHSS funding for PhDs. On the question of the value of the PhD scholarships Members were informed that the NIHSS was more aligned with the NSF funding programme at R132 000 per student. The Committee asked for a copy of the review because they found it interesting how little the NRF has in comparison with the NIHSS, and how much each student gets in funding as compared to the NSFAS. Members said that ‘The NRF really helps South Africa punch above its weight when it comes to research, it somehow manages to do this with very little funding’. And ‘When you look at world university rankings South African Universities do extremely well and those rankings are based on research; that goes to show how well they are doing which reinforces the argument that the NRF is indeed in need of more money’

Further on funding it was explained to Members that currently the funding is at the level of R60 000 for Honours level, R90 000 for Master’s level and R120 000 for PhD level and this is going to change because there is a new postgraduate policy which is going to reflect the demographics at the PhD level. What this means is that there was going to be two ways in which the NRF is going to be funding students: there will be partial funding for students who are excelling who may need the funds to be encouraged to further their studies. This also means that those students that are exceling in their studies and are financially needy will be fully funded. The goal now is to protect student bursaries that have already been awarded as they are the most vulnerable at the moment. This also includes internally looking at the freezing of posts and constantly being in contact with the Department about the other measures that should be considered. The NIHSS informed Members that around 44% of the budget would go to scholarships.

With regard to the impact of Covid-19 on funding, as the Chairperson had already indicated most government entities will have to shed 20% of their original budget. As it stands this has not been finalised as the Covid-19 virus is still going but at present what is anticipated is a loss of around R96 million cut into the baseline and a R760 million total cut in the budget. In the immediate short term this is going to have a sizeable impact on the capacity of the organisation to fulfill its mandates.

The Committee’s concerns around decolonisation were allayed when it was explained that the role of the institute in a decolonised curriculum was to produce this knowledge. This will be a slow process, but it is a project that everyone needs to engage with systematically. It includes encouraging students to convert their PhDs into articles and into their vernacular languages – it is through these kinds of steps that this process will bear fruit.

Meeting report

Response to Questions and Briefing on the Strategic Plan 2020 – 2025, Annual Performance Plan (APP) 2020/21 and Budget: NSF

Mr Mvuyisi Macikama, CEO: National Skills Fund (NSF), first presented on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the budget and skills development interventions of the NSF. The NSF is funding +- 59 000 learners for education and training for on-going learning programmes (Learnerships, apprenticeships, bursaries [through NSFAS/NRF agreement], workplace-based learning and skills programmes). In the main, these are interventions that extend over a period longer than one year. It has been planned to increase the number of beneficiaries to be funded to 60 000 for the 2020/21 financial year. In addition, the NSF has contractual commitments in line with its strategic outcomes to improve Public Sector Education and Training (PSET) through research, infrastructure, capacity building and constituency-based interventions to expanded access to PSET opportunities; improve success and efficiency of the PSET system; improve quality PSET provisioning and create a responsive PSET system. An assessment of the current contractual commitments is being undertaken to establish the state of readiness, scope of implementation of project plans in line with the risk adjusted strategy, position of employers to allow learners in the workplace, areas of cost savings and possible areas to reprioritise interventions.

This clearly had an impact on the budget: Current contractual commitments amount to R10, 214 billion over the medium term for beneficiaries and PSET improvement interventions. NSF reworked its budget in line with its decreased income due to the four-month skills levy holiday and the immediate rise in expenditure as a result of COVID-19.  The research on the labour market will also provide insights in further changes in the skills levy income due to anticipated job losses and occupational shifts. The NSF’s income is projected to decline by R2.53 billion (56% decline) in the 2020/21 financial year and by a total of R5.97 billion (42% decline) over the medium due to COVID-19. The decline is due to a four months skills development levy holiday which will result in an estimated R1.295 billion loss in skills development levy income for the 2020/21 financial year.

The lockdown measures are resulting in job losses and salary cuts being implemented by companies, so there was a lower consolidated wage bill for South Africa. The lower wage bill will result in a lower skills development levy due to the levy being 1% of companies’ wage bill. The decline in the skills development levy is projected at 25% due to a decline in the wage bill, resulting in a further R2.798 billion loss of income for the NSF over the medium term.

The NSF has requested to retain its accumulated surplus funds of R9.956 billion in order for the NSF to remain a going concern by meeting its current contractual and constructive commitments of R10.214 billion over the medium term, as well as meeting its increased expenditures in the 2020/21 financial year in response to COVID-19.

NSF earmarked R1.162 billion of its accumulated surpluses for annual recurring bursary allocations towards students on NSF funded bursary schemes.  There is a constructive obligation on the NSF to continue to fund the existing learners it currently funds on these bursary schemes as they progress from one academic year to the next and also for the NSF to continue to fund new student cohorts entering the system every year to the level it is currently funding.

Currently, the NSF is funding +- 59 000 learners for education and training on on-going learning programmes, which extend over periods longer than one year. The NSF remains committed towards funding these learners over their entire qualification period. This is to ensure a maximum throughput of learners obtaining their qualifications and preventing a high drop-out of learners from one academic year to the next due to a lack of funding to complete their studies.

On whether the NSF has budgeted for the construction of the remaining new TVET College campuses, Mr Macikama stated that the NSF has budgeted and was contractually committed to construct new and refurbish existing TVET college campus infrastructure to R 1, 6 billion over the medium term. Construction commenced prior to lockdown but was suspended for the 11 TVET sites. The NSF further budgeted and contractually committed R208 million towards TVET College Connectivity to SANReN. Next three slides as extracted from the Annual Performance Plan 2020/21 with details of the infrastructure development.

Then finally, Mr Macikama addressed whether beneficiaries of the NSF skills interventions would continue to receive their stipends during the lockdown period. He said that the NSF will continue to issue these stipends, however this means that there is a projected increase by R620 million in response to COVID-19 to make provision for the additional stipend payment to learners. This includes an allowance of R1 000 per learner per month as additional support to the learning environment to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This will result in an additional R60 million per month, which is expected to last for six months from June to the end of November, amounting to R360 million in total. This expenditure will be monitored and processed in line with the NSF payment protocols. The continuations of learner stipends during lockdown were approved. The continued payment of learner stipends during the lockdown months of April and May 2020 is estimated at an additional R260 million over a two-month period.

NRF Briefing on Human Capital Development (HCD) and Science Engagement

Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Group Executive: Strategy Planning and Partnerships, National Research Foundation (NRF), led the presentation on the mandate of the organisation.

The mandate of the organisation was to contribute to national development by: supporting, promoting and advancing research and human capacity development; developing, supporting and maintaining national research facilities; supporting and promoting public awareness of and engagement with science; and promoting the development and maintenance of the national science system and support of Government priorities.

NRF support for postgraduate students: 

Overall there were 346 966 NSFAS students with an investment of R18 billion for SA students.  The NRF has 12 771 students 84% SA with a R936 million investment. As of 2018 the post graduate students supported are: Honours - 4 478 Students, R273 million Invested 98% SA, 89% Black SA and 58% SA Women; Masters - 5 008 Students, R303 million Invested, 86% SA, 67% Black SA and 51% SA Women; PhD - 3 285 Students, R313 million Invested, 68% SA ,46% Black SA and 40% are SA Women. All these were collected from the different types of institutions that have postgraduate degrees. In overall there is a 57% success rate for funding.

The NRF has support for what it calls Early Career Researchers: these are individuals that occupy academic or research positions and are on a development track towards becoming established researchers and are mostly black.

 The Black Academic Advancement Programme was created with the FirstRand Foundation (FRF) n 2017 with the goal of increasing the proportion of suitably qualified Black African academic staff and academic staff with disabilities at South African public universities by establishing the Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP). It has supported 38 and 75 academics in 2018/19 and 2019/20 respectively at an investment of R23 million (R7 million and R15.5 million). In 2020/21, 90 academics will be supported at a cost of R19 million. Of the 75 BAAP grant holders supported in 2019/20, four have obtained their doctorate, nine have submitted their theses and 17 have completed Post-PhD research training.

Dr Beverley Damonse, Group Executive: Science Engagement and Corporate Relations, NRF, looked at the strong geographic areas that South Africa has chosen to advance its agenda.

To create a transformed research workforce there are a number of challenges that the organisation is facing these include:

  • a lack of continuous funding and support for early career researchers;
  • a lack of a deliberate programmes for exceptionally talented early career researchers to become leading researchers and scholars in all fields of science;
  • Competition of early career researchers for resources with established researchers that impedes that timeous career progression; 
  • Institutional capacity to offer permanent tenure and capabilities to support early career researchers; and
  • Heavy teaching loads of lecturers

To combat these, there are some strategic interventions that have been put in place. These include Introducing a programme to replenish the cohort of Leading Researchers and Scholars by focussing on South African Black females under the age of 40 years. Exceptional researchers and scholars at South African public research institutions will receive support to align with the individual’s development path and the unique needs for different knowledge fields.

The NRF is facing a series of challenges to be able to fulfil its duties. There is a need for increased public investment – demand exceeds available resources. Limited resources affect:

a) The reach of post graduate students and researchers that can be supported as well as the extent of its science engagement programmes;

b) The value of all grants and

c) Renewal and replacement of research infrastructure.

There is a need for policy and planning coherence across both the DSI and DHET lines. The NRF works across both sectors, but chiefly within Higher Education institutions. System–wide transformation is interdependent on a number of partners – the NRF is but one contributor.

National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) 2015-20

The Committee was taken through the above presentation (See attached)

Section three of the presentation focused on scholarships and graduates – to date, the Institute has awarded over 700 scholarships although not all awards were taken up. 58% of NIHSS-funded doctoral students are female and 42% are male. 70% of these doctoral students are black, 6% coloured, 7% Indian, 15% white and 1% Asian. NIHSS-awarded doctoral students totalled as follows:

2014:123

2015: 216

2016: 231

2017: 190

103 regional doctoral workshops were funded by the NIHSS to enhance creativity and technical capacities of NIHSS-funded doctoral students. Five national doctoral conferences were funded annually to advance postgraduate scholarships. The number of regional workshops held was as follows:

2019/20: 30

2018/19: 35

2017/18: 12

2016/17: 22

2015/16: 4

The NIHSS National Mentorship Programme was critical in ensuring students receive the support they need during the course of their studies. The Institute appoints senior academics annually to serve as mentors for that academic year. 84 mentors are appointed and funded over the 2015/16 – 2019/20 period to support students within the mentors’ allocated region(s). The NIHSS mentors provide a variety of support activities to the NIHSS-funded doctoral students, including the coordination and effective implementation of Regional Doctoral Schools and national thematic workshops, hosting of regional workshops, bringing together students from different universities in the same region to interact and learn and introducing the various aspects of doctoral studies, such as formulating research proposals, obtaining ethical clearance, and academic writing.

227 NIHSS-funded Doctoral graduates were reported to date (15 March 2020) since the inception of the NIHSS scholarship programme with over 400 scholars still in the system. NIHSS-funded Doctoral students that have graduated:

2019/20: 95

2018/19: 67

2017/18: 38

2016/17: 27

Of the above, 110 are male and 117 are female.

Of the above:

71% black

6% coloured

7% Indian

15% white

1% Asian

The work of the NIHSS is contributing to transformation on multiple levels, from the demographic profile of South Africa’s doctoral pool in the HSS and the decolonisation of curricula to the advancement of multilingualism in higher education and the strengthening of top-level research capacity at historically disadvantaged institutions. Not only does this work increase South Africa’s small but growing share of global research – now standing at around 1% of world output – but it also ensures that blacks and black women academics are making their presence felt.

Making multilingualism in higher education a reality: NIHSS-supported doctoral students have been among the first in South Africa to submit conference abstracts – and in some cases PhD proposals – in indigenous languages. A substantial amount of other NIHSS-supported research is shedding light on the development of academic languages other than English in higher education. Decolonising the social work curriculum: Social work graduates participating in a PhD research study have made a range of constructive suggestions on how to decolonise the social work curriculum.  Now it is up to higher education institutions and policy-makers to listen and respond. HDIs deliver more PhD graduates: Doctoral studies have traditionally been the preserve of historically white universities in South Africa. That is changing, with more and more NIHSS PhD graduates coming from the universities of Fort Hare, Venda and Limpopo. 69% of the NIHSS Alumni are working at Universities, being active in the Higher Education space and continuing to publish their work.

The presentation also covered the NIHSS alumni whereabouts, research programmes, knowledge production and the international research programme.  

Discussion

Professor (Prof) B Bozzoli (DA) first referred her questions to the NIHSS. She said they seem to have gotten the point that funding humanities’ research is very different from funding science research. She does however think that there is a lot that the NRF is doing that the NIHSS could be doing as well like their centres of excellence programme or their outreach programme. So perhaps setting up some kind of liaison between the two organisations so that they can learn from one another could be beneficial for the two organisations. She first wanted to know the value of the scholarships given to PhD students. She said that she asked this question to see if this amount is more or less the same as the one that the NRF also provides. Even though the NIHSS might think that the R120 million is not a lot it actually is. The whole amount that the NRF issues for all disciplines for PhDs is R313 million so actually by comparison with the NRF the NIHSS is well funded. This was something of an anomaly for her. The problem lies within the NRF funding not with the NIHSS because they are grossly under-funded. Perhaps this should be a message to the NRF, the DSI and the National Treasury that this kind of low funding cannot be sustained. She then wanted to know from the NIHSS what amount of their funding goes to PhDs; are the PhD students that are funded by the institute staff already working or are do the students have undergraduate degrees. ‘Does the institute fund pure philosophy, pure music PhDs’? And ‘does it fund what the NRF calls established researchers because it seems as though they only fund students’? Although that is something that is also important because humanities students do need a number of seminars and conferences all of which are costly. ‘What about established researchers, the ones that are going to be helping these students with their research’. Finally, she was wondering if the Committee could get a copy of the review because she found it interesting how little the NRF has in comparison with the NIHSS, and how much each student gets in funding as compared to the NSFAS. The NRF really helps South Africa punch above its weight when it comes to research, it somehow manages to do this with very little funding. ‘When you look at world university rankings South African Universities do extremely well and those rankings are based on research; that goes to show how well they are doing which reinforces the argument that the NRF is indeed in need of more money’.

Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) also directed her questions to the NIHSS – she asked if the Institute has done any work on the proposal by students in 2015/16 on the decolonisation of higher education, ‘what has been done so far to address this’? One could suggest that the Department and its entities deal with this issue so that they do not find themselves in a few years being faced by the same protests that occurred under the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Fees Must Fall’ movement questioning whether any of the work that has been done by the institute actually addresses the South African context. With the increased prioritisation of sciences and engineering one will find oneself questioning the importance of the social sciences in the government’s priority list. ‘What work is being done around making sure that the humanities are also seen as important’? The presentation states that over 777 students were awarded scholarships and 200 students were awarded their PhDs – ‘is there any indication where the remaining 423 students found themselves’? ‘How many are still in the system’? ‘How many have dropped out’? ‘And how long does it take them to finish their PhD studies’? ‘Does the institute have collaborations with the HSRC and the NRF, if yes, can they share the kind of work that they have been doing together’?

Mr P Keetse (EFF) first wanted to briefly address the NRF – he wanted to know if the NRF does anything to assist the students it helps to acquire qualifications. ‘What happens when they have finished their qualifications’? ‘Do they then have to fend for themselves afterwards’? He says he finds this extremely problematic especially in a country like South Africa where there is a high unemployment rate. Referencing the Mr Mkhatshwa on decolonising education, he said this is something that they fought for in 2015 and it is something that is still being done to this day, there needs to be something happening to address those grievances. He then addressed his earlier point saying that there should be something that is being done to help students after they have finished their studies. What ends up happening is that many people fall between the cracks, if not that what ends up happening is that the bright minds whose education is funded by the NRF work for multinational corporations or end up going oversees because the government is not doing enough to make sure that they are retained and are benefiting the government. He then addressed the issue of indigenous knowledge and customs; he asked what the NRF is doing to preserve this kind of knowledge. He made an example of the remedy that was said to be helpful in curing Covid-19 in Madagascar – ‘what is the organisation doing to make sure that that kind of knowledge is not taken aside as it represents African indigenous medicine’. He finally asked the NRF if it is looking at some kind of grant for students doing post-doctoral research; he mentioned Switzerland and said that they give students who are not employed funding to be able to do their own research. In that that way they can keep themselves stimulated and interested in their fields of study.

Dr W Boshoff (FF+) wanted to know how confident the different government entities are in maintaining the funding that they have this year with an economy that is set shed 10% of it this year; and with increasing demands on both the economy and on the health sector especially since it is hard to know the exact impact that this will have on the government. He then noted that the NRF and the HSRC are involved in a lot of projects in their presentations so much so that he wondered what the exact need for the NIHSS is if both NRF and the HSRC are already doing as much they are at the moment.

The Chairperson said he does not have questions on the presentations in fact he was quite satisfied with how they were presented. The only thing he wanted to express was his concurrence with the issue of funding raised by Prof Bozzoli and the directive from Treasury that 20% of government spending must be cut, which is obviously going to have an impact on the work that the NRF is doing. He said he wanted to buttress the issues that have already been mentioned. He handed over to the NRF to answer some of the questions posed to them.

Dr Phethiwe Matutu started with the question posed by Prof Bozzoli’ on funding. She said currently the funding is at the level of R60 000 for Honours level, R90 000 for Master’s level and R120 000 for PhD level and this is going to change because there is a new postgraduate policy which is going to reflect the demographics at the PhD level. What this means is that there are going to be two ways in which the NRF is going to be funding students: there will be a partial funding for students who are excelling who may need the funds to be encouraged to further their studies. This also means that those students that are exceling in their studies and are financially needy will be fully funded. The costing for this has been done, this will mean that there will be a cut in the number of students who are funded to accommodate the full funding of the needy students. She also said that they have been negotiating with Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) to help with the wraparound of this undertaking to ensure that students who have done well in the Master’s programme get to easily progress to their PhD studies. With regard to indigenous knowledge systems: this requires students, human capital development, curriculum development and other facets; it all goes down to applied research and innovation – the role of the NRF is on the human capital development aspect which has to do with postgraduate students and research grants. When it comes to the innovation aspect - the innovation aspect was moved from the NRF to the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) so that is their domain. The NRF supports all efforts that are for indigenous customs that are within the ambit of what it is set up to do. On the matter of the absorption of PhD students: there is postdoctoral support, fellows will apply and depending on the competitiveness of the application pool students will be able to go for their postdoctoral research. These changes for funding will kick in in 2021.

Dr Beverley Damonse addressed Dr Boshoff’s question on the impact of Covid19 on funding: she said as the Chairperson had already indicated that most government entities will have to shed 20% of their original budget. As it stands this has not been finalised as the Covid-19 virus is still going but as it stands what is anticipated is a loss of around R96 million cut into the baseline and a R760 million total cut in the budget. In the immediate short term this is going to have a sizeable impact on the capacity of the organisation to complete its mandates. The NRF is currently looking at systems to mitigate where it can on the impact, but this is going to be hard as it will not be easy to mitigate a R760 million cut in the budget. The goal now is to protect student bursaries that have already been awarded as they are the most vulnerable at the moment. This also included internally looking at the freezing of posts and constantly being in contact with the Department about the other measures that should be considered. So, in essence it is making sure that research is continued through the support of students and researchers as well as internally making sure that the costs are low and saving anywhere possible.

Prof Saurabh Sinha, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation: University of Johannesburg, said he agrees with what the Chairperson had expressed earlier in the meeting. He wanted to deal with the issue of Innovation – the review that is taking place could increase the innovation aspect of the budget. South Africa has already shown its capabilities; if one is to remember the drought period it was through South Africa that there were drought resistant measures to help the country through that crisis. He further mentioned that the White Paper on Science and Innovation will also be helpful here because it makes better provision for innovation to thrive.

Mr Tumelo Mokoena, Chief Financial Officer (CFO): NIHSS, commented on the budget implications of Covid19 on the institute. With regard to funding around 44% of it will go to scholarships. On the question of the value of the PhD scholarships the NIHSS is more aligned with the NSF funding programme at R132 000 per student.

Prof Sarah Mosoetsa, Chief Executive Officer (CEO): NIHSS, said that in terms of the NIHS budget, it is definitely 44% as per the CFO paid directly to universities. However, it is more like 55% of the budget that is spent on students if one accounts for other programmes meant to assist the students like the mentorship programme and catalytic research programmes. The majority of them are not fulltime staff members.  The role of the institute in decolonised curriculum is to produce this knowledge. This will be a slow process, but it is a project that everyone needs to engage with systematically. This includes encouraging students to convert the PhDs into articles and into their vernacular languages – it is through these kinds of steps that this is happening. The language catalytic projects lead by Prof Maseko is also aimed at addressing that as well. There are a number of students who have dropped out of their PhD programmes like there are around 700 of them who are not registered anymore. There are number of reasons why this has been happening and it has mostly been due to ill health as many had issues dealing with their mental health and unfortunately some have passed on. There also have been non-takers who went on to take other scholarships. There are around 300 students who have already graduated and are already writing papers for submission. On average a PhD takes around four years to complete. The NIHSS has collaborated with HSRC. Working with the HSRC is different because it does not give funding, it only collects it. The NIHSS has funded a number of academics at the HSRC. One of the products of this relationship is the HSRC Press which the CEO is very proud of. Finally, she mentioned that the NIHSS has had its fair share of storms that it has weathered over the years. The current economic climate is no different from the rest of them; however, it would be unfortunate if the NIHSS would experience a disproportionate brunt of the economy right now. She noted that ten years ago it was decided that the humanities should also be seen as an important part of research and development in the country; the creation of the NIHSS has over the past five years shown how this is indeed a necessity, the institute has also shown in the period that its existence is necessary in expediting this process.

The Chairperson said he will not add further remarks to the presentations.

The meeting was adjourned.

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