Graduate attributes

Graduate attributes

Not many can disagree that education is key to economic growth, both at a national level and individually. It should not be a surprise that the most developed countries have the highest number of doctoral graduates. For example, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2014, the United States had 67 449 doctoral graduates, followed by Germany with 28 247.

In the meantime, Lesotho, like all post-colonial independent countries, wait for foreign nations to help them develop. But the donor countries developed Basotho to resemble them. They subsume Basotho and make them lose their identity. For example, instead of building Basotho traditional practices such as ‘matsema’ (communal farming), they introduced new cultures to the detriment of Basotho. Lesotho must invest in Basotho to achieve her sustainable developmental goals.

This article follows an earlier one I called: ‘Graduate quality and employability’. I explained the need for institutions to state graduate attributes upfront. The present article distinguishes between medical doctors and doctoral degrees graduates. It describes the qualities that distinguish doctoral graduates in society.

Graduates with doctoral qualification carry title doctor (Dr). In countries such as Lesotho, three people assume the title Dr, two deservedly, and the third one, not. The first group is Medical Doctors (MD). The second is doctoral graduates, often all called PhDs (Doctors of Philosophy). In this article, I will use a PhD and doctorate interchangeably.

It is common to ask who is a real doctor. I, for one, have been accused in my face that, after all, I am not a real doctor. Then who is a real doctor? I begin by discarding who is not a doctor. It is a common practice that universities recognise individuals who made significant contributions in societies. Several times these are politicians. Their citations would reveal achievements higher education institutions (HEI) recognise them for. So the award is earned after achievements, not in anticipation.

Universities often award honorary doctorates to outstanding society members. Recipients cannot coerce HEIs to grant them honorary doctorate by dangling carrots in front of them. But, recipients of honorary doctorate do not study for the award. They cannot use the title doctor outside the awarding institution. If they do, they fit the Sesotho expression: ‘ngakana ka hetla’, meaning an imposter.

The most common usage of the title ‘doctor’ is for MDs, who hold two undergraduate degrees, Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS, MB ChB). MBBS and MB ChB are the minimum qualification that an MD may hold. So, the programme admits a student with suitable school-leaving grades. Hence, applicants need not have any degree for admission into a medical school. An undergraduate medical degree takes students five to six years to complete.

MDs are also called general practitioners. Suppose they wish to further their studies and specialise, they would enrol for a masters programme leading them to specialise in a field they desire to. The masters programmes take six years to complete. On completion, they would graduate as masters (Mr) of their area of specialisation. However, many specialist doctors prefer to stick the title Dr, arguing that the Mr does not reflect the 11 or so years they spent at university.

Contrary to MDs, there are academic doctors. These are students who followed doctoral degrees in their graduate studies. Postgraduate doctoral degrees are the highest qualification that students may register for in universities. The graduates use the title Dr before their names. They earned the title.

Historically, doctoral students were apprentices for work in academia. But some ended somewhere else. With new developments, universities now prepare graduates for other career paths other than academia. Unlike the honorary doctorates, these graduates enrolled in postgraduate doctoral studies for three to four years before satisfying the awards of the respective doctoral degrees.

The other senior postgraduate qualification is masters. A masters programmes prepare graduate students to engage in doctoral research. Both masters and doctoral qualification require students to produce a research report called a dissertation or theses. Most institution reserve the term thesis to the research report by doctoral students.

But a doctoral student is like any other student. Unlike, for instance, a grade 1 pupil, a form 5 student or undergraduate student, doctoral students determine what they want to study and their pace. PhD students learn on their own in universities under a moderator. They undertake advanced research that includes analysing, critiquing existing knowledge to identify gaps. They then generate knowledge that would plug in the gaps. Students present the study in a research report called a thesis or dissertation at the end of their research. Some universities subject doctoral students to a viva, an oral examination where they defend their research. A community of experts decide on the readiness of the student to receive the degree.

In contrast, MD students are not mandated to write a research report to pass. They do not generate new knowledge. But, MDs apply the existing produced by others. There are traits that an MD shall have. They can diagnose an ailment in their patients and provide them with prescriptions. In so doing, they use existing knowledge. The same applies when MDs prescribe treatment. With this in mind, we can say that MDs are advanced technicians or technologists who use knowledge created and produced by others.

The designation for the most doctoral degree is Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). A PhD advances theoretical research leading to theoretical discipline knowledge. A doctorate in a profession, like in education, law, uses the name of the domain. Examples include Doctor of Education (EdD) or Laws LLD to advance professional practical knowledge in a respective profession. In this article, I will use the terms PhD and doctorate interchangeably.

I discarded an honorary doctor from the two. I showed that an honorary doctor is a ceremonial degree that carries no value beyond the conferring institution. So two remain. The Sesotho translation for term doctor is ‘ngaka’, which affirms that an MD is a proper doctor. The Sesotho translation spices up the call to decide who deserves the title. The most significant difference between an MD and an academic doctor is that the latter generates new knowledge while the former applies it. Some may wonder who then is a real doctor between the academic doctor real doctor between an MD and an academic doctor. A doctorate is!

I wrote elsewhere that stakeholders judge the quality of a graduate by the ease with which they access jobs and stay in them. The ability to find a job indicates the articulation between higher education and employment. So, authorities pressure universities to produce employable graduates. Graduates must display attributes, capabilities and dispositions to work successfully. All in all, graduate attributes are an embodiment of an HEI community collective projection of a graduate.

A quick way to assess graduate employability is by surveying graduate uptake between completion and graduation. A university asks completers to submit a filled survey questionnaire about their employment with attendance confirmation for a graduation ceremony. However, Australian and English studies engaged a different strategy to gauge their doctoral graduate employability. They tracked the doctoral graduates from three to 12 months after graduation. The recent studies reported consistently high levels of PhDs’ employment in a range of careers. PhDs were competitively successful in gaining jobs. The recent studies confirmed that doctoral studies prepared graduates for employment. The ‘recent studies’ confirmed the immediate employability of PhDs.

There is no national database on Basotho doctoral graduates. Yet, the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) pays for higher education studies in Lesotho. Therefore NMDS has data on doctoral graduates they sponsored. So, CHE, MoET and NMDS must consolidate this record.

CHE reveals that there were 109 academics with a doctoral qualification in Lesotho’s HEIs in 2019. In the meantime, there were 353 and 11 masters and doctoral students, respectively, in HEIs. These figures are disappointing. CHE herself urges for more enrolment in postgraduate studies. I argue for more enrolment in doctoral studies.

CHE reports that three HEIs conduct tracer studies from 2013 – 2017. The institutions use this information to inform their curriculum. HEIs initiatives move in the right direction because it enables stakeholders to make direct input to the curriculum. However, these HEIs must share their experiences with their fellow institutions and other scholars. All HEIs must embrace and institutionalise this move.

Employability as an indicator of quality has shortcomings. A major flaw is that employability commodifies higher education. They present university education as a profit-making institution with students being clients and knowledge, a service. A more holistic graduate quality indicator is graduate attributes. They represent core competencies and values the university community agrees all its graduate should develop on completing their studies.

Consequently, a university must not just prepare graduates for jobs. Still, they must prepare them to lead national developmental imperatives. A challenge with doctoral graduate attributes is that different universities offer differently structured doctoral programmes. For example, countries like South Africa, Lesotho offer research-only doctorates. On the other hand, countries like Australia and the United States of America offer research and course work doctoral qualifications.

These proponents contend that structured PhDs provide doctoral students with structured and systematic opportunities to develop critical transferable skills and competencies. They argue that students in research-only PhDs cannot make this claim. Students pick up these attributes on an ad hoc basis. So, they question the fitness for purpose for research only doctoral studies.

I am afraid I have to disagree with the proponents who discredit research-only PhDs. By definition, curriculum is all experiences, formal or otherwise a student is exposed in their study. For this reason, students submit theses as partial requirements for their PhDs degrees. For example, graduate students present papers in conference and peer-reviewed journals. A thesis cannot represent all the knowledge, skills, and competencies that a doctoral student acquire in the programme. The responsibility of institutions, departments and promotors is to facilitate all learning and graduate attributes development in their students. The institution must provide students with opportunities to develop the required graduate attributes.

The studies above confirm doctoral graduate employability. The recent studies list attributes that their doctoral programmes develop. Mainly, students developed in-depth knowledge of their discipline, effective communication, independence and creativity, critical judgement, and analytical skills. They also added teamwork and understanding of intellectual property issues and leadership.

An international research institution put these attributes differently. An example from an Australian university listed the following as their graduate attributes:

  • Specialist knowledge: Capacity to assimilate information in depth in the field of study and impart a clear understanding. Appreciation of the relevance and value of his or her original contributions to the fact, theories and practices of the national and international community.
  • Global perspective: Highly developed appreciation of global perspectives in the chosen discipline(s) and the nature of global citizenship.
  • Interdisciplinary perspective: Commitments to intellectual openness and curiosity and the awareness of the limit of current knowledge and the links amongst disciplines.
  • Lifelong learning: Commitment to the ongoing acquisition of knowledge and new skills, and a highly developed ability to apply these to new situations.

There are overlaps in the recent study report and institutional graduate attributes presented above. But these attribute must reflect the curriculum experiences of the graduates. Accordingly, the doctoral graduate epitomises them.

I searched through the CHE and NUL documents on their websites, seeking to contrast their graduate attributes with their international colleagues and competitors. Although CHE had guidelines on distance doctoral degrees, and the qualifications had aims and objectives, these said nothing about graduate attributes. NUL’s programme descriptions were utterly silent on graduate attributes.

In closing, I began this article by showing that worldwide economic development is a function of doctoral graduates. Yet, Lesotho does not have a database of its doctoral graduates. Accordingly, Lesotho needs to consolidate a database of its existing doctoral graduates. The country must fully utilise the valuable assets that it invested in. The articles highlight the qualities of PhD graduates.

I contrasted an MD with a PhD. I showed that an MD applies knowledge generated by others. They do not develop knowledge. I compared MDs to technologists, people who use knowledge that a researcher generated. Only MDs are advanced technologists because of the number of years they spend sharpening their craft. Their craftiness! These justify the qualification, ‘advanced’.

The article introduces doctoral graduate attributes as the embodiment of the doctoral curriculum experiences projected through a graduate. To add, I stressed the need to go beyond employability in measuring graduate quality. A PhD engages in advanced cutting edge research to generate new knowledge. Their graduate attributes must reflect the rigour in which they employ in pursuing their studies.

HEIs conduct tracer studies to gauge the employability of their graduates. In so doing, the information should inform their curricula. For this reason, the HEIs have made a positive move.
In closing, higher education must embrace graduate attributes as the agency for change. Graduate attributes are the intuitional brand embodiment. The doctoral graduate attributes are the agencies that will disentangle Lesotho from the bondage of colonialism , enabling her to attain her sustainable developmental goals.

Dr Tholang Maqutu

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