Burundi’s first doctoral school, to be located at the University of Burundi, was launched at a conference held at the university in July under the theme "The role of research and development in African universities in the achievement of the objectives of sustainable development."
The new school is geared towards developing scientific capacity for sustainable development and meeting the challenge of graduate employability, according to Juma Shabani, the school’s director.
According to Shabani, the concept of a doctoral school emerged from the implementation of the Bologna process of building the European Higher Education Area. A doctoral school provides doctoral education in one or all the university’s disciplines. The concept differs from a school of postgraduate studies which encompasses training for PhD and masters degrees as well as postgraduate diplomas, he said.
According to Shabani, Burundi's doctoral school will also contribute to the training of academic staff and researchers needed by the other higher education institutions.
East African Community
Shabani said the University of Burundi is also expected to play a major role in facilitating the integration of the country’s institutions into the East African Community Common Higher Education Area that was launched on 20 May 2017.
Shabani, who is the former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, indicated that online student registration in the doctoral school will be launched on 14 August. Registration will be open to all Burundian citizens as well as students from the East African Community and the Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries. Priority will be given to assistant lecturers of the University of Burundi.
Priorities for the doctoral school include the development of a virtual library, the organisation of lectures and research programmes, and preparation for student exchanges to some universities in Belgium and the East African Community sub-region in October 2017.
According to Shabani, major challenges facing the new school include the inadequacy of qualified academic staff and researchers required to supervise PhD students, insufficient research laboratories and up-to-date scientific journals.
Out of 127 countries, Burundi ranks 122nd in the Global Innovation Index 2017 report entitled “Innovation Feeding the World” which surveys economies using metrics ranging from patent filings to education spending and provides policy-makers with a high-level take on innovative activity that drives economic and social growth.
Burundi was ranked 117 for tertiary education enrolment, 114 for human capital and research, 124 for knowledge and technology outputs, 104 for university-industry research collaboration, 99 for gross expenditure on research and development, and 100 for graduates in science and engineering.
In order to meet its challenges, Shabani indicated that the University of Burundi will implement a system of co-supervision of theses in collaboration with experts and researchers from universities in the North and South, and facilitate student mobility aimed at the use of world-class research laboratories. In this regard, the University of Burundi has already signed more than 20 partnership agreements with African and European universities, he said.
The university is also involved in mobility programmes involving international experts relating to the use of information and communication technology, and is to launch its virtual university in December 2017.
According to Nick Hopwood, associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia and an extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, at which the African Doctoral Academy is based, the doctoral school was a “significant step for higher education in Burundi and East Africa".
“Doctoral education should take place on ‘home soil’,” he said. "Not only will the graduates be home-grown in Burundi, but potentially the knowledge they produce, too, by fostering the production of knowledge in situ, and in ways that not only respect local knowledge, but build on and advance it."
"Of course, opportunities for students to study overseas are important, too, and should remain, but the fact is this will become a choice rather than a necessity for Burundians wishing to acquire doctoral degrees," Hopwood said.
Open source knowledge
Expanding on the challenges that could face the new doctoral school in Burundi, Hopwood said: "Access to knowledge is an issue, but can be alleviated by brokering arrangements with publishers to provide free access to otherwise paid-for content. The increase in open source knowledge will also help this, but emerging doctoral scholars will likely need a combination of open and other source information in coming years.
"A challenge in all doctoral programmes relates to embedding doctoral pedagogy in existing research infrastructure, whether that be research communities, equipment, pathways to accessing knowledge, ethics and governance, funding arrangements.
"Where this is less developed and diverse, collaboration – be it domestic, regional or beyond the continent of Africa – can be particularly valuable," Hopwood said.
He said a final challenge relates to a potential shortage of doctorate faculty members which could limit the availability of supervisors to support new entrants into Burundi’s doctoral programme.
Hopwood said collaboration with regional partners where supervision capacity is higher and expertise is available, could be helpful. “This could be done through models of supervision mentoring on a regional basis, or professional development provided by the nearest possible colleagues," he said.
Gina Wisker, professor of contemporary literature and higher education at the UK-based University of Brighton, described the establishment of a doctoral school in Burundi as an “indication of real investment in the talent of early career researchers and the building of a research culture to support intellectual and human resources development as well as economic growth".
Wisker, who is also co-author of a 2016 report entitled Postgraduate Study in Uncharted Territory: A comparative study looking at the importance of PhDs for academic career progression in different settings, said the school and its students will require both advocacy and finance.
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