Challenges to doctoral education in Africa

Research is one of the three major pillars of higher education. For a university to progress and to address the needs and challenges of the knowledge industry, academics must constantly be engaged in research.

For the past two decades, research universities across the United States, Europe and developed countries at large have been placing increasing emphasis on the importance of doctoral education as an engine for growth of the knowledge economy.

Along the same lines, researchers in Africa have undertaken various studies to investigate the process of universities functioning as tools for development for the continent.

Worldwide, new curricula and new jobs are emerging, replacing traditional ones. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs requiring a masters degree are projected to increase by 22% by the year 2020, while positions requiring a doctoral or professional degree will increase by 20%. New areas and fields of research will thus emerge, calling for universities to innovate and adjust to the needs of society.

Eradication of poverty, access to education for all, empowering the younger generation with education, minimising the brain drain, gender equity, and encouraging African women to participate in the development of Africa, have been high on African government agendas.

To contribute to the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals on the African continent, African universities are encouraged and supported to strengthen their research capacities to address the skills demands of their knowledge societies and to emerge as nodes of excellence to improve quality of life and the well-being of their citizens.

Although the task is not easy, given the socio-economic and cultural diversity and the political differences among countries, research policies and frameworks can be contextualised to approach solutions for the knowledge requirements of each country.

This article draws on the research results of a five-year study, with yearly discussion forums, that has been carried out by the Centre for Higher Education Trust or CHET for seven flagship universities in Africa.

Trends in doctoral education

The outcomes of the study reveal doctoral enrolment at seven Sub-Saharan African flagship universities – University of Cape Town, Makerere University in Uganda, University of Ghana, University of Botswana, University of Mauritius, University of Nairobi and Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique.

The total doctoral enrolment at the seven universities for the period 2000-01 to 2013-14 was 3,538, with a share of 57% for Cape Town and the remaining 43% for the other six flagship universities.

A slow growth in doctoral enrolments was observed for those six flagship universities, which contrasted with the increase in masters degree enrolments for the same period.

Results indicate that not many masters degree graduates move on to enrol for a PhD after completing their studies. There is a lack of incentives at the level of higher education institutions and of private and government sectors, to motivate African students to pursue higher level studies.

The study found two major factors affecting the production of doctorates at the six flagship African universities: academics holding a PhD end up doing either consultancy and-or additional teaching, which are more rewarding than producing more doctorates.

It was interesting to note that although Mauritius is ranked first in the Sub-Saharan region in the Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016 published by the World Economic Forum, the University of Mauritius does not produce a large number of doctorates.

It must be highlighted here that for any university to improve its knowledge production, a better understanding of the academic and non-academic job market for high level knowledge is important.

The recent CHET publication, Doctoral Education in South Africa, emphasises that in order to produce quality doctorates, adequate importance and emphasis must be given to the quality of supervision, and this must be supported by doctoral tracer studies analyses, to show whether there is a reasonable match between the demands of the labour market and the knowledge and skills presented by doctoral graduates.

CHET research further reveals that apart from Cape Town, the knowledge production and research output of the other six flagship universities is not strong enough to make a sustainable contribution to development, while it is widely agreed that African universities must produce more academics with doctorates to increase knowledge production.

CHET criteria indicate that for a university to perform as a research tool for development, 50% of its core academics must have earned a PhD, enabling them to provide a high level of teaching and learning as well as generating more PhDs for the development of the knowledge economy.

An additional concern was that, with the exception of the Higher Education Quality Council of South Africa, how policies are regulating the quality of postgraduate programmes articulated in African countries is not clear.

Few evaluation systems and quality control mechanisms are in place to ensure the quality of doctorates. Interestingly, CHET studies reveal that African labour markets and governments do not systematically evaluate the competencies of PhD holders, nor the relevance of what they can contribute to society.

As compared to what happens in Europe, predominantly in the United Kingdom for example, the Quality Assurance Agency or QAA provides a code of practice for postgraduate research, including doctoral education.

Universities in the UK, as a result, have well-established guidelines that clearly delineate the rights and responsibilities of supervisors, universities and doctoral candidates. Internal and external assessments form part of the research framework and add to transparency and accountability.

Results of internal assessments form the basis for external assessments from third party institutions, such as the QAA, the Higher Education Funding Council or other professional research bodies. In many instances where external funders have funding streams for doctoral education, these may also externally evaluate doctoral education.

Therefore, it is believed that for a university to perform as a tool for development, appropriate frameworks must be in place at the national level to regulate and assess the effectiveness of doctoral outcomes.

Challenges for research

Africa is viewed as a continent with huge potential for growth, and is called upon to harness its resources to emerge. Universities in Africa have tremendous capacities and resources to deploy in favour of training, development and innovation.

As the knowledge economy grows, careers needing doctoral education will emerge in Africa, and new methods of teaching and research will need to supersede traditional ones. Academics holding a PhD must be motivated and guided to produce more doctorates, who will strengthen and empower the labour force.

Digitisation and computerisation will play a key role in the transformation process of all businesses and of the financial, educational and other key development sectors in Africa. Likewise, universities will need to provide increased access to electronic research databases and improved information technology facilities for conducting research.

Universities will need to review their model of doctoral education for new and better models of postgraduate management, supervision and coordination, providing more peer interaction and international collaboration.

Regulatory mechanisms and policies at national or regional level should guide the implementation of research strategies and plans. Regular assessments must be in place to ensure that the outcomes of doctoral education match skills requirements for the academic, industrial, public and private job markets.

Tracer studies will certainly help to understand the degree of employability of the doctoral graduates on the job market, and will determine the extent of the research contribution and impact on the knowledge economy.

Last but not least, increase in support must be provided for research-performing institutions, with a more stable model for funding.

* Fareeda Khodabocus is director of quality assurance at the University of Mauritius and a member of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network for Africa, HERANA. Email: