Speech by Minister Nzimande at the launch of the National Tracer Study of Doctoral Graduates in South Africa - 21 July 2023

Programme Director

The DSI Director-General, Dr Phil Mjwara;

DSI Deputy Director General  Research, Development and Support, Mr Imraan Patel;

All DDG present from both DSI and DHET;

Representatives and leaders of Science Councils;

National Research Institutions, particularly Dr Jennifer Molwantwa, the CEO of the WRC which partnered with the DSI on this study;  and Drs Fulufhelo Nelwamondo,  and Phethiwe Matutu, the CEOs of the NRF and USAf, respectively, who will form part of the panel discussion later;

Prof. Johann Mouton, the Director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Scientometrics and STI Policy (SciSTIP), who led the research team;

Representative of the Private and Business sectors;

Representatives from various Government Departments;

Representatives from Institutions of Higher Education;

Labour and Civil Society;

Distinguished guests;

Members of the media;

Ladies and gentlemen

Good morning

It is my pleasure to be joining you this morning on the occasion of the launch of the Ministerial launch of the National Tracer Study of Doctoral Graduates in South Africa.

Our current National Tracer Study of Doctoral Graduates in South Africa is the first such comprehensive study by government and our higher education institutions and research institutions.

Previous studies were limited in focus and scope, thus not systemic and never zoomed into certain sectors, certain disciplines or even lower qualification levels.

Building on the Water Research Commission’s capabilities in conducting the Tracer study of Water PhDs in South Africa, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) assigned Water Research Commission (WRC) as the project manager for this National PhD Tracer study.

Through this launch we aim at the dissemination of key study findings and recommendations, as well as stimulating a discussion with key stakeholder groups, be it government, business, higher education institutions, civil society, and students on the value of the PhDs in society and in the economy.

Ladies and gentlemen

The correlation between the weighted number of PhDs, as in the number of PhDs per million of the population and the country’s economic and innovation performance is well established globally.

This weighted number of PhDs is referred by some as the PhD density, and to some as the PhD intensity. The assertion of the PhD as a driver of innovation stems from this strong correlation.

With the pivotal role that the PhDs play in the country’s socioeconomic development, South Africa has not empirically demonstrated and domesticated this cause-and-effect relationship.

The question is, have we, as South Africa, empirically traced the socio-economic impact of our PhDs.

Both the Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper on STI and the STI Decadal plan seek to expand the research enterprise by supporting more PhDs and build a strong pipeline of human capabilities.

The tracing of PhD holders/graduates into their careers and occupations in different sectors, including  the entrepreneurial sector, is important and justified given that the PhD is an apex qualification obtained after a considerable amount of investments (of upwards of 20 years) in learning, teaching and supervision support, mostly at the State’s or tax-payers expense.

Advanced countries have been conducting studies to trace the mobility and careers of PhD holders.  The EU countries, for example, have commissioned these studies under the general theme or title of the “Mobility and Careers of Doctorate holders” – to trace what is called the “stock and flows” of PhDs in and out of different sectors and EU member state countries. 

With a significant portion of PhDs enrolled and graduating from South African universities coming from outside SA and with SA having positioned itself as a PhD training destination especially for the continent, it is thus important for the country to answer questions relating to the brain gain, brain drain or brain circulation of these highly skilled human resources and human capabilities.

I do not want to go into details by immersing myself in the findings and recommendations of the study, but as a system we have been concerned with both the supply and demand side of the PhDs.

While we were making strides and successive leaps in increasing the numbers of PhDs graduating annually from our universities, the question of the absorptive capacity of these PhDs by the country’s economy has been lurking in the background.

The DSI conducts annual Research and Development (R&D) Surveys and the NACI publishes an annual STI indicators report.

Most of the indicators in the two reports are dependent and influenced by the number of PhDs that the country produces. 

This study reflects on the PhD absorptive capacity of the private sector, the public research system and higher education institutions.

In our other attempt in assessing the socio-economic impact of our postgraduate funding, we have requested the NRF to establish a digital platform to track all the postgraduate students it has funded over the years.

This digital platform would also look at the entire postgraduate human resources  development pipeline of the NRF funded students.

Most importantly, this PhD tracer study will be a useful input into that digital platform even though the National PhD Tracer study is not necessarily restricted to only NRF funded students.

As the Department entrusted with driving research and innovation, we pride ourselves in using well researched data and evidence in making decisions about critical policy issues or interventions.

This research body of knowledge and the ensuing evidence will add to a repertoire of other studies commissioned under my Ministry of both the Department of Science and Innovation, and Higher Education and Training.

In closing, I will hasten to mention some of the studies that have formed the basis of evidence and policy decisions on matters of postgraduate studies and the general support of researchers.

I would humbly like to ask  you to peruse through these studies, in your free time.

  • The Retention, Conversion and Progression of Postgraduate students (2015) – which sought to investigate the ‘leaky’ postgraduate human capital development pipeline;
  • The Postgraduate Research Training in Engineering (2018) – which investigate low PhD graduation in Engineering, particularly women PhD engineers. I am happy that we have a black women PhD engineer in the panel today. An interesting finding here that is of direct relevance to the PhD absorption question is that most PhDs in Engineering get employed in the financial, insurance and fintech sectors in the private sector;
  • The study on Building the Cadre of Emerging Researchers in South Africa (2018) – also called the “Silent Majority” study, looked at who holds PhDs, who actively publishes and who actively seeks research funding among emerging researchers in our university system;
  • The study on the Recruitment, Retention and Progression of black South African academics in SA universities (2019) looked at just that, namely blacks and particularly black women recruitment, retention, and progression in the higher education rungs.

It is my honour to launch this PhD Tracer Study!

I thank you


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