Government Plans To Increase Access To Postgraduate Funding


Several funding opportunities have been introduced for students pursing post-graduate studies in STEM careers. These funding options are aimed to help and support students pursuing advanced degrees in these fields.



The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) has implemented several postgraduate funding programmes through the National Research Fund (NRF). This funding is provided to students pursing Honours, Master’s, and Doctoral study degrees.

In a recent portfolio committee meeting on Higher Education, the department revealed that the NRF accounts for about 95% of the total annual postgraduate students supported through Programme 4.

The department says the remaining 5% are supported through Programme 4 funds that have various funding initiatives including, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Although the NRF supports students across all disciplines, a large proportion of students are in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, with the majority of these students studying Biological & Chemical Science (26%) and Medical & Health Sciences (13%).

Improving Funding Equality

In order to improve equality with regards to which candidates receive post-graduate funding, the DSI adopted the ‘Ministerial Guidelines in Improving Equity’ in 2013.

According to the department, the principles of these guidelines focus on representation, improved efficiencies and the prioritisation of science, engineering, and technology-related disciplines.

Equity guidelines for postgraduate funding are as follows:

  • 87% South African – (of which 80% is Black, 55% Women and 4% people with disabilities)
  • 13% International students 

From 2017 to 2021, the percentage of these target groups funded has increased. The total percentage of South African black students increased from 70% to 81%, South African women increased from 53% to 59% and South African black women from 42% to 50%.

However, despite these positive results, there have been a number of key challenges faced since the implementation of these guidelines.

Funding Challenges

The DSI explained that some of the key challenges in the Implementation of the Ministerial Guidelines included:

  • Low progression rates of students from Honours programmes to Masters and Doctoral Programmes
  • Long time to completion and advanced age at completion
  • Transformation
  • The current bursary amounts are not comprehensive 
  • The funding of financially needy students at postgraduate levels
  • There is no policy synergy with NSFAS, as NSFAS only provides funding for undergraduate studies 

In order to address some of these challenges the DSI and NRF programme has put measures in place to intervene.

Some of these interventions include prioritising funding for full-time studies, introducing age limits to achieve Doctoral completion by age 35, as well as a postgraduate funding pipeline for NSFAS funded undergraduates.

Ninety percent will be allocated to South African citizens and permanent residents, 90% and 55% will be allocated to South African black and female students respectively.

The department added that postgraduate students will be funded from the Honours level until the Doctoral level without interruption.   

In addition, financially needy students, those with a disability and exceptional academic achievers will be funded at full cost study.

Intervention Outcomes

As a result of these intervention, the DSI says that for the 2022 academic year, targets were met for the funding of South African citizens and permanent residents (95%), women (61%) and students with a disability (1,4%). However, the target of 90% for students of colour was not met, with only 85% being enrolled. 

Meanwhile, one of challenges the new approach presented is the impact that it has had on the number of students funded. The department says this is largely due to an increase in bursary values and an annual inflationary increase and while these numbers are increasing, the budget allocation from the DSI is not.

Another challenge faced is that the National Skills Fund (NSF) budget allocation has also been declining over the years from R254 million in 2016/17 to R151 million in 2021/22. 


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