Where to from here for the African PhD?

There is broad agreement that Africa needs tens of thousands more PhDs, to renew an ageing professoriate and to staff rapidly expanding higher education, boost research and generate the high-level skills growing economies need. How is this to be achieved? Last week African university leaders and experts thrashed out a range of proposals, including on networks and collaboration, supervision incentives and the diaspora, political support and funding.

There is a conundrum. In order to produce more doctoral graduates, more PhD supervisors are needed: but in order to have more supervisors, more PhDs are needed.

This is but one obstacle facing universities across the continent as they battle to cope with rising student numbers, brain drain, employer demands, developmental imperatives and a general lack of support from governments that are cash strapped but also do not prioritise doctoral education – although higher education is rising up political agendas.

Outside Johannesburg, three dozen higher education leaders, experts, funders and journalists gathered for a two-day workshop convened by South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, on “Expanding and Sustaining Excellence in Doctoral Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa: What needs to be done?”

The workshop started from the premise that a radical rethink is needed regarding how PhD education in Africa is conceptualised and delivered. It built on research into the demands and challenges of PhD production, and of retaining scholars in universities, as the basis for debates on issues and constraints, opportunities and actions.

“We are at a tipping point. The time has come for conversations that are African-led, African-driven and with real direction in terms of being productive and having clear and concrete outcomes,” said Dr Omotade Akin Aina, programme director for higher education and libraries in Africa for the Carnegie Corporation.

The meeting was part of a larger process underway for the past five years, Aina said. Carnegie has a strategy on developing and retaining the next generation of African academics, and has been supporting networks, anchor institutions, universities and fellowships “geared at producing excellent PhDs on the continent who are retained”.

There have been numerous other efforts, including by African universities “that are operating at what I call a ‘phase of recovery’” and by academic and scientific networks across Africa working towards the production of PhDs – some represented at the workshop. They needed to come together more, Aina stressed.

The discussions will also feed into an all-Africa summit on the future of higher education, supported by Carnegie and being organised next year by the NGO Trust Africa and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, CODESRIA.


A concept note for the workshop pointed out that research and knowledge production played a critical role in the socio-economic development of African countries. Yet many African universities were unable to fulfil their research mandates effectively, and under-development had constrained the flourishing of postgraduate and particularly PhD education.

While rapidly expanding economies elsewhere had more than doubled their rates of scientific publication in the past decade, Sub-Saharan Africa contributed only 0.7% to world scientific output and this percentage was decreasing. Further, three countries – South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria – produced three-quarters of Africa’s output.

South Africa has calculated that to achieve global competitiveness and contribute 1% of global research output, it must raise its annual production of PhDs from around 1,500 currently to 6,000 by 2020 – and there was plenty of evidence presented at the workshop showing that this will not be possible with current staff and support levels.

“A set of negative self-reinforcing circumstances perpetuate these trends,” the document said. Many institutions had too few academics with PhDs who could supervise doctoral students, and those who were qualified were often overburdened or lacking experience and knowledge of good supervision. Also, models of doctoral education had remained largely unchanged.

“Institutions across Africa lack the capacity to produce knowledge at the requisite rate. This means that without substantial enhancement of human capacity, they will continue to fall even further behind, with disastrous consequences for the continent in a knowledge-driven global economy.”

Interventions required a regional approach with appropriate beneficiaries and partners, including regional specialisation, ‘knowledge spill-overs’, shared resources, cost-effectiveness and broader capacity development, the note said.

“Any intervention must aim to achieve the ‘pipeline imperative’ by strengthening capacity not only of doctoral candidates but also at all levels of the pipeline, including postdoctoral fellows and early career researchers. They will serve as a pathway to a corps of committed researchers and scholars who participate actively in an ever-evolving knowledge economy.”


Higher education advisor Dr Katherine Namuddu, a former academic in Uganda who also worked with the Rockefeller Foundation of New York, summarised some of the discussions into some powerful points.

One was a disjuncture between national policies and institutional practice, discovered by research in South Africa. Key conclusions were that quality was assumed rather than specifically defined in national policies and was not rewarded, that policies often overlooked the key role of supervision in PhD production, and that in “slavishly” striving to adhere to policies, part-time students – who often make up 75% of graduate students – are often neglected.

Another point was that while articulating challenges is easy, identifying opportunities is not.

The workshop identified only four opportunities, said Namuddu: the “huge potential to partner with scholars in the diaspora”; the potential to harmonise policy and develop a business model for cross-border training; collaborating with the African Union’s and the World Bank’s centres of excellence; and “building models of higher productivity for women scholars since experience shows that they are more likely to be retained”.

There was a lively debate about differentiation, but it was dismissed by some participants as not possible outside South Africa. Namuddu suggested that the detractors think again. The discussions also highlighted the need for universities to “consider more carefully a broader concept of sites for doctoral education”.

Ways forward

The workshop concluded with a brainstorming session on ways forward for PhD education in Africa. Dr Aldo Stroebel, executive director of international relations and cooperation at the National Research Foundation, kicked off the discussion by saying:

“We need an integrated approach to PhDs, a coordinated network and additional support to focus on capacity development.”

The following were actions suggested by participants.

Continental level
With resources scarce and the challenge huge and continental, workshop participants agreed on the need for strong support for PhD training at the Africa level. They called on:
  • • The African Union to publicly commit to supporting PhD training, and to encourage member countries to prioritise doctoral education, including in their budgets.
  • • The African Union to support doctoral training centres of excellence.
  • • The African Union Commission to resuscitate the idea of an African Research Council as a vehicle to support PhD education.
  • • The Association of African Universities, or AAU, to push for Africa-wide funding for PhD training – for Africans, within Africa. If countries were to fund such an initiative, they would have an interest in drawing on it to support their own PhD education.
  • • Leading African philanthropists to continue to support higher education, and continental groups such as Trust Africa to help bring on board more indigenous philanthropists.
  • • Donors to join efforts to expand and improve doctoral training, with a particular focus on enhancing capacity in universities to produce PhDs.
National and regional level
At the national and regional level, the workshop proposed that:
  • • National governments and regional bodies prioritise PhD training, and commit funding to it.
  • • Regional higher education groups and networks collaborate more and coordinate their activities in pursuit of doctoral education, with the AAU providing active support for this work.
  • • The role of higher education and research networks was seen as crucial, and efforts should be made to strengthen existing networks and create new ones.
  • • Vice-chancellor associations and regional university organisations develop advocacy and media strategies to promote public and governmental awareness of the importance of PhD education.
Institutional level
At the institutional level, delegates agreed, there were needs among other things for:
  • • Incentive initiatives for doctoral training and for PhD supervisors, to make them more committed to this work.
  • • Resources for PhD students such as physical space, internet access and timetables.
  • • Proactive mechanisms for more effective data collection and management, using networks to support this work.
  • • Joint accreditation and joint supervision and mentoring.
  • • Increased academic and student mobility within regions and across Africa.
  • • Tapping into African professors in the diaspora for PhD training support.
  • • These efforts should be pursued with an emphasis on preventing brain drain.
Universities should capitalise on their strengths, both at the national and regional level, the workshop proposed. Vice-chancellors should explore ways of sharing PhD programmes, and create a platform on which to do this.

Institutions should also create vibrant environments for postdoctoral fellows, as they occupy a key place in the pipeline to academia, create supervisory capacity and advance the research agenda. Mentorship and supervision programmes should draw on professors in the diaspora.

Across all these activities, participants agreed, the way quality was benchmarked should be comparable with the best in the world.

Katherine Namuddu thought that striving to have the world’s best doctoral training programmes could be used as a slogan by universities to get everybody on board a vision for quality PhD education. Then they could explore how departments might work towards that goal.

“I suspect that ultimately, if a majority in a university understood and owned this slogan it would become much more likely to start building those internal and external coalitions for advocacy for greater investment and support for higher education and doctoral training that are critical in the broader national context.”

* University World News will produce a Special Report on PhD training in Africa, flowing from the conference, on 17 November 2013.