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Why do we need doctoral graduates to be able to compete in the global knowledge economy?

When we think of gearing up to compete in the global knowledge economy, we tend to think about the need for universal access to the internet and broad-based digital education. Few of us think about the role that doctoral graduates have to play - or why they’re so important. 

To gain some insight into this, we need to test our knowledge of exactly what a knowledge economy is. Unlike an industrial economy, which depends primarily on manufacturing output, a knowledge economy relies on the production, distribution and use of information and ideas. This is a radical shift in focus from what we have always seen as the source of value in an economy and is the concept that lies at the very heart of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the technology-driven tectonic shift that’s changing everything about the way we live, work, learn and play. 

At an everyday level, this means that most jobs in today’s world require a well-developed ability to assess, analyse and apply knowledge in order to serve people in some way. Whether this is in banking, healthcare, education, retail or, indeed, manufacturing, the long and the short of it is that the greatest value a company or organisation has is the knowledge of its workforce. And that knowledge needs to be nurtured at every level. From a strategic point of view, the ability to be agile and to innovate quickly and successfully within the context of constantly evolving technologies and shifting levels of interaction can make or break a business. 

Banks, for example, now have to offer not just a physical presence and an internet presence but also technologies that deliver a host of added values and an easy, user-friendly customer experience. Retailers, in turn, are rapidly having to adapt to the burgeoning demand for a seamless and convenient online purchasing experience that is backed up by a high level of customer service. Even in farming, the use of AI-driven technologies like drones and rain monitoring systems are essential if farms are to be efficient and remain competitive. 

The role of doctoral graduates

This is where the need for doctoral graduates comes in: graduates who have the skills required to innovate and lead enterprises of all kinds into the future. And, if their qualifications are to be relevant in the contemporary working environment, studying towards a doctoral qualification means much more than proposing an area of study and writing up a lengthy thesis that few people beyond the academy are destined to read. 

This applies especially in South Africa, which has such pressing transformation and development needs, the measure of a doctoral degree lies in the impact it has, both in the graduate’s field of study and on society as a whole. 

The government has recognised how important it is to promote doctoral study and has set a target of producing 5 000 doctoral graduates a year from 2030, nearly double the number of candidates who graduated annually just five years ago. It is also aiming to ensure that 75% of all academics in universities across the country hold a doctoral degree by 2030, again double the number who held this qualification at the turn of the decade.  

The motivation for this is to equip academia, government, business and industry with suitably qualified individuals to drive the development of a robust and sustainable knowledge economy characterised by a future-focused mindset and what can only be described as extreme technological proficiency. In a context such as this, knowledge is the new form of fuel and doctoral graduates are the engines.     

A new breed of doctoral graduate 

With this in mind, it’s clear that we need to cultivate an entirely new breed of doctoral graduates and that studying towards a doctoral degree needs to go way beyond the acquisition of specialised knowledge. 

In short, doctoral degrees need to deliver graduates with a set of highly transferable skills in problem-solving, critical reasoning, in-depth analysis and original thinking. Above all, doctoral qualifications need to strengthen the graduate’s capacity to consider every challenge in a multidisciplinary way and to take many different variables into account when finding and implementing solutions to those challenges. 

If South Africa is to be able to compete with developed economies driven by knowledge, the value of doctoral education can’t be underestimated. And it is for this reason that candidates need to adopt an entirely different approach to study — and to apply their learning.  

A unique approach to doctoral study

The nature of business schools should be such that they require doctoral candidates to interrogate the nature and role of their area of study while still in the process of writing their degree proposals — and to find a unique voice before undertaking the degree itself. 

Once equipped with a doctoral degree, candidates need to be able to make a significant contribution to change and development, both in their field of study and in society as a whole. They also need to be able to demonstrate a meaningful return on the investment they or their companies have made in advanced education. 

They have to test and defend their theses before they are accepted for doctoral study, and throughout this initial process, they need to engage with faculty and other students in a way that reflects the real-life working environment. 

What kind of doctoral graduates do we need? 

There is a growing need for graduates who are equipped to take a multidisciplinary approach to the management of technology, innovation, people and systems. This is because there’s a need for learning programmes to support the goals of both the National Development Programme and the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 

The aim of all institutions of higher learning is, therefore, to do more than impart knowledge; it’s to empower future leaders with the capacity to change the world based on the universal values and teachings of visionaries like Leonardo da Vinci and Nelson Mandela. 

Like these and other historic leaders, we believe that education is the most powerful tool for effecting positive change in society. And if we boil it down to a single deliverable, as institutions of higher learning we need to contribute to the pipeline of excellence that will enable South Africa to compete successfully in the global knowledge economy. 

Professor HB Klopper, Executive Dean: Research, DaVinci Business School


DaVinci Business School offers two doctoral degrees, a Doctor of Business Leadership and a Doctor of Management in Technology and Innovation.


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