The African Quest for Nurturing Doctoral Education

Now that African higher education is undergoing “massification,” the quest for PhDs for the proliferating new institutions has become paramount.

November 11, 2013

Now that African higher education is undergoing “massification,” the quest for PhDs for the proliferating new institutions has become paramount. The tension inherent between expansion and consolidation has been further exacerbated by the state of higher education, national development agendas and global competitiveness of the region.

The Rationale: The Obvious but the Obscure

PhDs prepare the medical doctors for a healthy society; the engineers to build the roads, bridges, dams, hospitals and schools; the agriculturalists to ensure food security; the educators to shape the next generation of teachers, not to mention economists, lawyers, scientists, business specialists —all contributing to the development of a ‘knowledge’ society. As obvious as this may be, many still pose questions on the rationale of higher education and production of PhDs. My intention here is to unequivocally state that building PhD programs is not simply to encourage “intellectual curiosity” but to address a critical aspect of national development. No country can develop without robust knowledge citadels fortified with PhDs.  In the era of knowledge economies, nations shun domestic knowledge domains at their own peril.

The compelling reasons for reiterating the obvious emanates from the plea by Dr. Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, who stressed the need to communicate the critical role of higher education to political leaders. Ms. Zuma, in her keynote speech at a symposium organized by the National Research Foundation (South Africa) and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, told the audience that “No country grows on the basis of primary education only…and higher education and PhD production are critical for the development trajectory of Africa”—as well as a major part of African Union Commission’s Agenda 2063. Her statement may help to put to rest the undue emphasis on primary education at the expense of higher education—a pervasive view rooted in a flawed policy that persists.

These polemics from a head of a regional political organization such as the AUC may generate some cynicism but it is important to recognize the power of such pronouncements from an organization whose endorsements may influence member states and politicians to increase funding, to explore more external sources of support for the sector, to  promulgate favourable policies and create environments that discourage prohibitive regimes and guidelines.

Intensive Efforts

A number of countries are developing plans to boost PhD production; Nigeria and Ghana have plans to produce 3,500 and 1,500 PhDs respectively. Ethiopia, has massively invested in its higher education system, with an ambitious plan to produce 5,000 PhDs in 10 years. South Africa currently produces some 1,700 graduates a year and is intending an increase to 5,000 by 2030.

The quest for PhDs is pushing the frontiers of new modalities. It appears that the traditional model of multiyear, fulltime, overseas study has become untenable, if not obsolete. Even the sandwich program now pales in the face of massive need. The approach that might quench this thirst is to increase local and regional production capacity; countries are encouraging their institutions to expedite its production. The South African government provides institutional rewards for graduating PhDs in a period of three years—in the process, putting pressure on institutions, academics and administrative practice.

Local PhD production, especially in small countries, has been problematic for a number of reasons. These include inbreeding, long completion periods, limited programs, shortage of advisors, weak infrastructure, poor funding, among others. The problem is further exacerbated by the aging faculty—a pervasive phenomenon across African higher education.

The Tension between Quality and Modality

Quality is an elusive concept especially when measurement is viewed through the prism of output—publications or innovations—or input—measured by resources or facilities. The ineffective and controversial nature of international instruments measuring quality in the African context is well documented. Regardless, the issue of PhD quality is too important to be exempt from scrutiny.

It is particularly worrying that one of the modalities of PhD production currently relies on publications alone. With fraudulent publication outlets mushrooming across the world against the backdrop of weak capacity of African institutions to track them—quality as measured by publications alone must be moderated by mandatory public defences. Furthermore, the universities must be the only entity granting PhDs. The quality assurance bodies need to play an even more active role here.

To be sure, producing a PhD is simply the beginning of a long journey into the academia [or high-end professional] life. That onerous journey, worthy of its effort, could only be successfully completed with appropriate and sustained resources, policies and enabling space. It will do no good to invest in the production of PhDs, if reasonable working and living conditions are not guaranteed—the absence of which will trigger and fuel brain drain. Re-entry grants, mentorship, post-doctoral opportunities, joint collaboration schemes, enabling scholarly space, and reward systems need to be seriously considered with the expansion and enhancement of doctorate studies.

Self-reliance Supplanting Heavy Dependence

A number of initiatives are currently underway to expand postgraduate studies in Africa. These include the African Economic Research Consortium (AERC), Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), University Science, Humanities and Engineering Partnerships in Africa (USHEPiA). AUC’s Pan African University and the Nyerere Fellowship supported by European Union Commission, along with the Center of Excellence initiative funded by the World Bank are some of the emerging ones.

Research and to some extent PhD studies in Africa have been heavily dependent on external donors. Despite criticisms of donor support, it has been central to bankroll African research—and in the process, a substantial number of African postgraduate students. As important as they may have been, the necessary expansion of PhD production cannot continue to depend on this support alone.

As the current global economic crisis and its consequences for development funding has proved, Africa must depend on its own resources and its own policies to build this critical pillar of sustainable development. This is particularly imperative at a time when the region has recorded sustained economic growth while its historical development partners have suffered economic turmoil.

The Nature of a PhD

African higher education is known for paradoxes. While massive access is now the trend, the system in the region remains elitist and many graduates remain un/under-employed. This fate is faced by undergraduates and PhDs in the region where concern for the continent’s competitiveness remains high due to a deficit of high-end expertise.

Decisions on what kind of postgraduate programs (Masters or PhDs), in what fields (hard, soft or professional), at which institution (the flagship or the new ones), on what modality (sandwich or entirely local), on duration (full time or part-time), at what pace (three, four or five years), at what cost (free tuition or fee-based) are not that easy. Striking the right balance between interest, need, and capacity will determine the success of this effort.


The deliberations of the Pretoria workshop and the list of participating bodies are expected to be fully published on 17 November issue of University World News (which compliments the earlier one published on 02 November 2013 issue available at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20131102155412705).




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