Emerging ideas for building PhD training capacity

The Southern African Regional Universities Association, SARUA, is exploring ways to build supervision capacity through collaboration and drawing on strengths of universities across the region. One emerging ‘hub and spoke’ model would connect research-intensive institutions with others that are more teaching-oriented to share resources and facilities for PhD training.

A workshop on SARUA’s doctoral supervision initiative was held at the University of Cape Town last month, in collaboration with the British Council. The association has 59 member universities across the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, region.

It flows from a cluster of activities undertaken by SARUA in recent years.

These include a dialogue series on Doctoral Education – Renewing the Academy, participation in the 2012 Cooperation on Doctoral Education (CODOC) study by the European University Association, or EUA, and a recommendation to increase doctoral output contained in higher education rejuvenation proposals made to SADC education ministers.

“We’re trying to find our way in terms of how collaboration on PhD supervision capacity development could work across the region, using the existing strengths of different universities,” SARUA Chief Executive Piyushi Kotecha told University World News.

To facilitate participation in CODOC – which looked at doctoral education in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Southern Africa – an ad hoc task team was formed, coordinated by Professor Nelson Ijumba, deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

“We decided to not only participate in the EUA work but to also do something for ourselves,” Kotecha said.

From a survey of SARUA member universities, it appeared that Southern African universities were interested in collaborating around doctoral training and supervision capacity building. The survey was conducted to assess capacity and need.

In a presentation to the CODOC final conference in Sweden late last year, Ijumba reported that about a third of SARUA member universities had responded, half from South Africa.

Of the respondents, 90% were willing to participate in a regional doctoral training and supervision capacity building initiative, and 85% said they needed assistance in training staff.

“About 70% of the respondents preferred an initiative in which there is collaboration in training, sharing of staff and equipment and sandwich courses,” Ijumba told the gathering in Sweden.

Further, 45% of the universities said they would need capacity building in training, and 40% said they had the capacity to provide training, with 15% giving no indication of capacity.

Nearly two-thirds of the universities were aware of or had participated in a collaborative initiative for doctoral training, many of which were considered successful.

’Hub and spokes’ model

Nelson Ijumba has been developing a ‘hub and spokes’ model for consideration within Southern Africa as a means of building PhD production and supervision capacity. At the hub would be research-intensive universities, while the spokes would be middle- and lower-research strength institutions.

Hubs would be based on areas of strength in the research universities, and virtual regional centres of excellence would be developed. Capacity building would be founded on sharing of resources and facilities.

The model, Ijumba said, could “be applied to enhance regional capacity in doctoral training and supervision as well as research” through co-supervision, sandwich staff doctoral training programmes and supervision capacity building.

Challenges would include access to and the accuracy of institutional data, lack of comprehensive data on existing national and regional collaborative initiatives, the need of training institutions for capacity building, development of funding models to rationalise resources based on economies of scale, and funding mechanisms to foster collaboration.

However, the need for such a programme was “widely accepted” and, among other things, the ‘hub and spokes’ model had the potential to achieve economies of scale and would enable considerable transfer of skills.

Kotecha told University World News that SARUA was currently exploring the model.

“We are looking to identify a number of fields around which there is consensus and it would be possible to attract funding, and where there is a supervisory base in the region with the potential for links between supervisory collaborators.”

“The idea at this stage is that such a programme must be high status and competitive. It will be capacity building based on a regional collaborative framework that is all about enhancing supervisory capacity and increasing the number of PhD graduates as a result.”