On the basis of numerical targets it had committed itself to reaching in 2015, the University of Botswana (UB) was to have a ratio of doctoral enrolments to academic staff with doctorates of at least 2.5 to 1 in the field of science, engineering and technology (SET). SET disciplines are spread out across life and physical sciences, medical and health sciences, engineering, mathematics, computing and information sciences as well as building and agricultural sciences.
That target remained a pie in the sky and when the year ended, UB had fallen short by 330 doctoral students. This situation represented spare supervisory capacity of 761 percent which was the second highest of the eight African universities that were part of a research project undertaken by a Cape Town-based think tank called the Centre for Higher Education Trust (CHET). At 1259 percent, the University of Dar es Salam in Tanzania had the highest spare supervisory capacity of that nature.
Spare supervisory capacity is defined as target total less actual doctoral enrolments. It basically means that academics with doctorates could have supervised more doctoral students. For 2015, UB’s target doctoral enrolments on a ratio of two doctoral enrolments per academic with doctorate was 422 but the actual enrolment was only 49. The university itself had 211 academics with doctorates in SET programmes. The target ratio for SET doctoral enrolments to SET academics was 2.0 but the actual ratio came to only 0.2. If a university’s ratio in any field is below the numerical target, then it has spare supervisory capacity and may not be as research-focused as it could be in that field. If its ratio is above the target, then it may be making efficient use of its available academic staffing resources.
Output of research articles is as important a factor for universities with a research agenda. While UB’s research output among PhDs ticked up in the period of the project (2001-2015), it still remained way below target. The ratios were derived not by dividing total research articles published by total permanent academics, but rather by dividing research articles produced within a broad field of study by the total number of academics in that field who hold doctoral degrees. What this means is that a highly productive academic in a field was not judged on the basis of his/her personal output but the output of his/her department as a whole.
The target ratios were 2.0 for SET and Health and Clinical Sciences, 2.0 and 1.0 for Business, Economics and Management and Social Sciences, Humanities and Education. The ratios of research articles per academic with doctorate in the SET were 0.30 in 2010, 0.45 in 2013 and 1.00 in 2015; in Health the ratios were 0.82 for 2010, 0.76 for 2013 and 0.33 for 2015; in Business they were 0.38 for 2010, 0.27 for 2013 and 0.09 for 2015; and in Social Sciences and Humanities and Education, they were 0.18 for 2010, 0.09 for 2013 and 0.08 for 2015.
While the University of Cape Town is the only university in the project which had no spare supervisory capacity, context is as important. For too long, South Africa was a dualistic economy and society, divided into aggregates of First World and Third World. Bringing these two worlds together after 1994 when the country became democratic may have had detrimental effect on academic standards at UCT. However, since its establishment in 1829, the university has always been part of very well-resourced First World South Africa.