AFRICA: Looming postgraduate studies crisis

Academic staff shortage has become a huge challenge for African universities, and no respite seems to be in sight. In fact, observers of higher education on the continent unanimously identify this issue as one of the most critical challenges to the mission of these institutions. They contend that, if urgent concerted action is not undertaken soon enough to address the problem, the African academy will not only lose its ability to produce the requisite number of personnel to support countries' human resource needs, but the quality of intellectual life will continue to erode.

First published in International Higher Education

The foregoing concerns call for evaluating how well African institutions are developing the next generation of academics to combat the decline and thereby boosting academic staff capacity and reinvigorating intellectual life. A critical area for such efforts, and the focus of this article, is postgraduate training. The sample is made up of 15 universities and seven countries that are members of the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa.

Postgraduate student enrolment

Some institutions seem to be making progress on the number and proportion of postgraduate enrolments. At the University of Ibadan, the percentage of postgraduate students increased from 18% of the total student population in 2001 to 35% in 2006.

Other institutions, however, are registering declining rates. At the University of Ghana, for example, the proportion of postgraduate students reduced from 14% in 2000 to 7% in 2008. At the University of Kwazulu-Natal, in South Africa, the decline was from 32% in 2000 to 26% in 2007. Postgraduate enrolment at Makerere University in Uganda dropped from 7% to 5% between 2006 and 2007, while in 2008 only 3% of students at the Catholic University of Mozambique were postgraduates.

The percentage of postgraduate enrolment remains relatively low in all countries: 15% in South Africa, 7% in Nigeria and 4% in Ghana.

Gender distribution

Apart from South African institutions, which are close to gender parity in postgraduate enrolments, the rest of the continent is characterised by male dominance. Still, the University of Kwazulu-Natal saw a reduction in the proportion of postgraduate females from 54% to 50% between 2000 and 2005, while at the University of Dar es Salaam the proportion dropped from 35% to 27% between 2002 and 2007.

Hopefully, these trends will recover upwards, instead of going down further. At the University of Ghana, females made up only 25% of postgraduate enrolments in 2000, growing to 33% in 2008.

Masters and doctoral enrolees and programme choices

Analyses of the distribution of students by programme level give cause for concern.

In 2008 doctoral students at the University of Ghana stood at only 6% of total postgraduate enrolment, a marginal increase from the 2000 figure of 5%. The proportion at the University of Kwazulu-Natal went up from 7% in 2000 to 10% in 2005. The proportion of doctoral-level enrolments among postgraduate students in South Africa, stagnated at 1% between 2000 and 2006.

While master's degree enrolments have increased over the years, the percentage of postgraduate students constituting the potential pool from which to draw the next generation of academics (that is, master's and doctoral students) is still very small.

These enrolments raise an even more sobering prognosis of the pipeline's potential to turn out adequate numbers of future academics. The majority of postgraduate students are pursuing programs at levels and in fields that are considered to provide them with opportunities for career advancement outside of academe. An inordinate number, over the last decade, have been in professional management programmes such as the master of business administration.

Graduation, retention and completion rates

Doctoral graduates, compared to their masters degree counterparts, represent quite a small proportion.

Only 11 of postgraduate students at the University of Ghana received doctoral degrees in 2006, representing a mere 2% of the postgraduate cohort.

In South Africa, Just 6% and 1% of postgraduates from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2006 obtained masters degrees and doctoral degrees, respectively. The corresponding proportions for Stellenbosch University, in the same year, were 14% and 2%. In fact, only a quarter of postgraduate degrees awarded by South African institutions each year, between 2001 and 2006, were for masters programmes, with a mere 1% for graduates of doctoral programmes.

The skewed gender distribution of masters and doctoral graduates is commonplace. Just 30% of 182 doctoral graduates at the University of Ibadan in 2006 were female. Only 34% of postgraduate degrees awarded at the University of Dar es Salaam went to females.

While postgraduate enrolments are a useful proxy for determining the potential pool of future academics, an even more crucial determinant is the percentage of students who complete their programmes.

The following illustration from the University of Kwazulu-Natal is instructive in alerting us to the need for such data and its importance for any strategic plans aimed at growing the number of future academics. In the faculty of health sciences, the average dropout rates for thesis-based masters students, from 2000 to 2006, was about 56% while the corresponding figure for their doctoral counterparts was about 35%. With more than half of masters students and over a third of doctoral students dropping out of their programmes, the next generation of academics is going to be negatively impacted.

The statistics are even more worrisome when the related indicator of completion rates is assessed. The rates for thesis-based masters and doctoral students average about 11% and 10%, respectively, for the 2000-2006 period. With only a tenth of these cohorts graduating, there is obviously a huge disconnect between intake and output, with serious implications for replenishing the professoriate with requisite numbers and appropriate levels of training.


Without a vibrant system of postgraduate training and viable strategies to support students for careers in academia, it will be nearly impossible to cultivate the next generation of academics.

To regenerate academe, African tertiary institutions will not only have to improve the relative numbers, proportion, distribution and quality of postgraduate students who enter but also ensure that these same characteristics are reflected in postgraduate output. Low enrolment, graduation and time-to-completion rates, as well has high dropout rates in some programmes, do not augur well for developing an adequate pool of high-quality future academics.

Concerted efforts are needed to design and implement creative and complementary funding models, forward-looking curricula and strategies for growing future academics. Increasing the low proportion of females in academe, for example, has to start with efforts at improving their numbers in postgraduate programmes. Institutions' sensitivity and responsiveness to work-life circumstances and career development will be particularly helpful in attracting and retaining the next generation of academics for the continent.

* Professor Wisdom J Tettey is in the Faculty of Communication and Culture, University of Calgary, Canada.

* "Postgraduate Studies in Africa: The looming crisis" was first published in International Higher Education, the journal of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, Number 57, Fall 2009. It is reproduced with permission.