Understanding the demands of PhD production

There are multiple factors holding back PhD production in Africa including low participation and graduation rates, an absence of enabling organisational conditions, lack of funding, deficient resources and infrastructure, a limited research agenda and poor productivity.

The enormous challenges facing African universities were outlined in a document prepared for a recent workshop by Professor Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) and Dr Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET).

The workshop on “Expanding and Sustaining Excellence in Doctoral Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa: What needs to be done?” was held near Johannesburg and hosted by South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Participants included leading scholars in the field of doctoral education, international funders of doctoral education, successful African doctoral training networks, African higher education bodies and representatives of research universities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The challenge

In a recent overview of doctoral production, Nature reported that there had been nearly 40% growth globally in doctoral graduates between 1998 and 2008, to around 34,000 annually in OECD countries.

“But growth in PhD production is not uniform across the world, and there is considerable debate as to whether it is an unambiguously positive development,” wrote Mouton and Cloete, pointing to a graph produced by Nature.

Countries with already high levels of doctorate production – for example Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom – were growing at around 5% or less, “while fast-developing countries are growing doctoral output at more than 7%, with Mexico (17%) and China (40%) growing at astronomical rates”.

Following a seminar in Ethiopia in 2012, the International Association of Universities (IAU) and the Association of Catalan Public Universities (ACUP) summarised the challenges of developing doctoral education in Africa.

These included: shortages of funding for students and institutions; low institutional capacity; diversity and duplication of programmes; poor quality supervision; inadequate responsiveness to national, social and economic needs; weak links to industry; lack of academic freedom; and poor international information-sharing.

A “very bleak” picture of PhD education also emerged in a study of nine Sub-Saharan African universities led by CHET as part of the Higher Education, Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, or HERANA, initiative.

Five of the nine universities – Botswana, Dar es Salaam, Ghana, Mauritius and Eduardo Mondlane – had produced 20 or fewer doctorates in 2007 while three – Makerere, Nairobi and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University – produced between 20 and 40.

“The slow growth in doctoral enrolments is in sharp contrast to the ‘explosion’ of masters enrolments,” wrote Mouton and Cloete. At Dar es Salaam, enrolment of masters increased by 23.5% annually, from 609 in 2001 to 2,165 in 2007, while three other universities had average annual increases of higher than 10% in the same period.

“A pipeline problem, affecting the production of doctorates and associated research training and publication, is the huge increase in taught masters courses that do not lead to doctoral study,” they wrote.

“For example, the University of Cape Town had 2,906 masters enrolments and 1,002 doctoral enrolments in 2007. In contrast, in 2007 Dar es Salaam had 2,165 masters students and only 190 doctoral enrolments.”

There were several possible explanations, including lack of incentives to continue studying, African students studying for PhDs abroad, or a lack of availability of doctoral programmes at many African universities.

“Whatever the reason, the effect is a serious curtailing of PhD numbers and hence a lack of an essential ingredient in the knowledge production process,” the authors said.

Among several other factors holding back PhD production identified by HERANA was one intrinsic to Africa – and the absorption of PhD graduates who might otherwise have conducted research or supervision into consultancy and foreign aid networks.

Low participation and PhD graduation

One major challenge is the small pool of potential PhD students coming out of degree programmes.

Despite rapid growth in enrolments in African higher education, participation rates are generally less than 5.2% – far below the rates of developed and even some developing countries, such as China’s 90% participation. South Africa’s participation rate is 16%.

Mouton and Cloete continued: “Between 1991 and 2004 the number of PhDs produced has increased by 817% in China, by 379% in Taiwan and by 82% in the UK. This is compared to 12% growth in the same time frame in the US and 3% growth in Germany.

“Regrettably, growth in doctoral enrolments and graduates in Africa has not expanded at the same rate. It is estimated that only 1% of students in higher education within the Southern African Development Community region are enrolled for doctoral programmes.”

In the HERANA study, five of the nine institutions produced fewer than 20 doctorates in 2007, two produced between 20 and 40 and only one (Cape Town) produced more than 100 doctorates.

African countries produced fewer doctoral graduates as a proportion of total population than countries at comparable developmental levels. “For example, South Africa produced 26 doctorates per million of the country’s total population in 2007. This is compared to 569 per million in Portugal, 187 per million in Korea and 48 per million in Turkey.”

Further, many students do not graduate or take too long to do so. In South Africa, average time-to-completion for doctoral students is 4.8 years.

The clear need is for universities to enrol and graduate far more, high quality graduates. “The challenge will be to do so within the context of the complex, interrelated challenges,” wrote Mouton and Cloete.

Absence of enabling organisational conditions

The poorly developed research function in universities perpetuates itself through interrelated organisational conditions. Mouton previously described this as the de-institutionalisation of university research in Africa.

“Conditions such as the lack of enabling work environments, limited numbers of adequately qualified research staff, inadequate infrastructure and the lack of consistent and sustainable funding for research prevail, limiting the extent to which universities can establish a research orientation and culture.”

A research culture is required to consistently deliver research outputs, and this is only possible with a ‘critical mass’ of motivated and committed academics functioning in an enabling environment where: they are adequately paid; workloads are managed; there are realistic staff-to-student ratios; high proportions of academics hold PhDs; and research productivity is incentivised.

To compensate for poor remuneration many African academics do consultancy work or private teaching. Some – but not all – research suggests that universities overload academics with teaching and administrative tasks, leaving insufficient time for research and supervision.

The HERANA study found great variation between institutions with regard to the staff-to-student ratio. Overall, ratios have been increasing – but not as drastically as anticipated, wrote Mouton and Cloete.

Many studies have indicated that the proportion of staff at African universities with PhDs is too low, but others “suggest that the situation is not dire”. In the HERANA study, “six of the nine institutions had strong (more than 50%) or medium (30% to 49%) capacity ”.

In the 2012 Cooperation on Doctoral Education (CODOC) study by the European University Association, Thomas Jorgensen found expected growth in staff with PhDs across institutions in SADC countries “and formal strategies in many institutions to enable this”. An emerging challenge would be for universities to retain academics with PhDs as an increasing number of doctoral graduates were taking up positions outside academia.

Experience and training in supervisory skills play an important role in the effectiveness of supervision, Mouton and Cloete pointed out. Indeed, poor supervision constitutes a “serious threat” to the quality of PhDs produced – especially in a context of increased pressures to produce more doctoral graduates. But there is a lack of supervision training.

Lack of adequate and sustainable funding

Mouton and Cloete wrote that an interesting – and complicating – factor had emerged in the HERANA study that illustrates the interrelated nature of organisational conditions in determining the ability of an institution to produce doctoral graduates.

Institutions that were comparable in terms of staff-student ratios and numbers of staff with PhDs could have “markedly different levels of productivity” in doctoral graduation rates and research publications. Financial factors appeared to interact with each other to impact on productivity.

Historically, the authors continued, limited funding has contributed to the status quo of African higher education “and continued inadequate investment perpetuates this” – although adequate and secure long-term funding levels do not ensure thriving institutions.

On average, Africa invests 0.78% of its gross domestic product and around 20% of public expenditure on higher education. But public investment has not increased proportionally to increases in student enrolment.

According to the World Bank, between 1991 and 2006 student enrolments in Africa tripled while public spending in higher education only doubled, Mouton and Cloete reported.

“Significant increases in funding aimed at addressing capacity and infrastructure challenges, estimated to the value of more than US$45 billion (2006 value) is needed – yet most African economies are not in the position to increase earmarked funding for higher education to this extent.”

There is little funding for research from governments and it must be sourced from donors, third stream income or internal sources. “The compound effect of this fragmented funding is a project-focused approach to research and the continuation of the underdeveloped research function in African institutions.”

In a 2010 report, the World Bank proposed ways to develop sustainable funding solutions and stressed the need for a comprehensive approach that would include: cost sharing; cost-efficient modes of delivery; well managed student flows; streamlining social expenditure; improving management and governance structures; and incentivising productivity.

“The high annual expenditure on bursaries for study abroad – approximately 20% of the higher education budget – is not sustainable in the long-term and innovative, well-managed financial aid systems, that support local students, are critical,” wrote Mouton and Cloete.

Lack of resources and infrastructure

In African universities, limited access to sustainable and adequate funding contributes to a lack of research infrastructure hindering improved research productivity, including research facilities, library holdings and technological infrastructure.

Research labs are underequipped and equipment maintenance funding is scarce, and libraries – print and electronic – are under resourced and have outdated material.

There is “limited and costly” access to ICT resources for students and academics, and a shortage of technical human capacity, “making it almost impossible to deliver high quality research outputs in a technology driven age”.

Limited research agenda and poor productivity

Globally, the rate at which scientific papers are produced has doubled in the past two decades. In Africa, however, the HERANA study found that academics at research institutions surveyed were likely to only publish one article every 10 years or more.

“Although the rate of publication is increasing at higher education institutions in Africa, it is not increasing at the same rate as the productivity in the rest of the world and thus the relative position of Africa as a knowledge producer continues to decline. Sub-Saharan Africa contributes 0.7% to the world scientific output and this has decreased in recent decades,” wrote Mouton and Cloete.

“Too few incentives and too many disincentives contribute to the low levels of productivity.” The South African incentive system, which offers US$45,000 per PhD graduate and US$15,000 per accredited publication, is the exception.

Poor perceptions of the quality of doctoral education

Unsurprisingly given all this, there are negative perceptions of the ability of universities to deliver high quality research. Evidence of this, Mouton and Cloete argued, is found to some extent in the ‘brain drain’ of academics from the continent and in the fact that the best African students often choose to study abroad.

A UNESCO report on trends in Sub-Saharan Africa reported that in 2008, 223,000 students were enrolled in institutions outside their home countries. They represented 5% of the student populations in their home countries – a percentage almost three times the global average.