Gathering of ministers calls for more African PhDs

African science and education ministers have called for bold and urgent steps to increase the number of PhD holders produced on the continent every year, as well as the establishment of an African research chair initiative, and the development of mechanisms to harness research mobility on the continent.

A ministers’ meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, hosted by the Next Einstein Forum, or NEF, and the government of Rwanda last week, resolved that countries should take concrete measures to increase the annual rate of PhD production, noting that the current number of the postgraduates on the continent was inadequate.

According to a policy briefing document produced for the NEF meeting, while undergraduate enrolments have expanded by 9.6% annually, reaching over 10 million students, postgraduate enrolment, both in masters and PhD programmes, makes up only 8% of the total enrolment.

Low PhD enrolment growth

Quoting an 11-year study of eight flagship universities conducted by the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, or HERANA, the policy brief noted that with the exception of institutions such as the University of Ghana, Makerere University and the University of Botswana, average annual increases in PhD enrolment were well below 10%.

At the eight universities, the combined total of doctoral graduates increased from 154 in 2001 to only 367 in 2011, with the universities of Cape Town, Nairobi and Makerere producing 76% of the total doctoral graduates.

The NEF was created in 2013, and is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in partnership with German foundation Robert Bosch Stiftung, and is geared towards promoting African development through increased scientific output.

The countries of Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and host Rwanda participated in last week’s discussions under the theme "Collaborative Global Research Networks: Implementing essential actions".

The NEF Ministerial Meeting is held every six months to review progress on recommendations made each meeting and to propose concrete initiatives based on global best practices and local contextual experiences and challenges.

Country evaluations

In order to achieve greater PhD numbers, the forum proposed that all countries roll out comprehensive evaluation and analyses of the number of PhDs per field, and identify the strengths and weaknesses of national PhD training systems, including their design and their facilitation of mobility.

Care should be taken to ensure that social sciences were not neglected at the expense of training science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, doctoral students, according to a statement released at the end of the meeting.

“Delegates insisted that while increasing the number of STEM doctorates is critical for innovation, social sciences and humanities must not be overlooked,” the statement said.

Two options are on the table for further discussion.

The first will optimise PhD enrolment by recruiting in-country potential candidates who are willing to pay for PhD education, but cannot pursue full-time class-based programmes due to professional engagements. This could be done either by remodelling the programme design (blending traditional coursework with other leadership acquisition trainings); by remodelling the mode of implementation; or by creating new interdisciplinary tracks.

The second option aims to attract those African students who opt for postgraduate studies in private institutions outside the continent as a means to optimise African postgraduate mobility within the continent.

Research chairs

On the issue of the African Research Chair Initiative, or ARCI, the forum observed that the process of establishing the initiative should be managed on a country by country basis and in recognition of every country's "capabilities and progress".

The ARCI, it was resolved, should build a pipeline of young researchers to benefit from such initiatives. The next meeting is to review this further, identifying collaboration mechanisms for existing initiatives, as well as filling gaps with new national and regional initiatives.

The research chair concept embodies an approach whereby scientific research in strategic socio-economic areas is centrally coordinated, and is funded by internal and external financiers including the government, private sector and non-governmental organisations.

The chair of the programme coordinates and recommends research projects for funding, while at the same time supervising, training and mentoring postgraduate students.

In Africa only a few countries including South Africa and Kenya have research chair programmes, with Kenya having introduced it only two years ago at Moi University, with plans to roll the initiative out in all the country’s 22 public universities with support from the Canadian government.

Globally, countries that have included such a programme in their universities include the United States, Canada, Australia and a majority of European Union countries.

Academic mobility

In Kigali last week, the ministers also resolved to take steps to increase the mobility of researchers and called for the crafting of mechanisms that would see increased mobility, including that of African scientists working in the diaspora.

“There is a need to form a consortium that includes various African and global institutions, especially the private sector, that would design and fund mechanisms to increase mobility among African researchers living in Africa and the diaspora,” a closing NEF statement said.

“This consortium would also work to highlight opportunities in each country, as well as foster international research collaborations.”

Delegates also asked the NEF to investigate the creation of industry-led research initiatives that foster mobility and collaboration, it said.

The road ahead

The NEF will review recommendations arising from the meeting and propose a concrete road map for implementing them, according to Thierry Zomahoun, NEF chair and CEO of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

“We believe innovation-led transformation in Africa cannot be sustainable outside of research, and we’re working with African governments, learning institutions and the private sector to accelerate research collaboration and funding in critical scientific and technological fields,” he said in a statement.

Besides the ministerial events, the forum hosts biennial NEF Global Gatherings attended by hundreds of outstanding thinkers and distinguished stakeholders from around the world. The next global event will be held in Kigali in March 2018.

Additionally, it runs the NEF Fellows Programme and the NEF Ambassadors Programme, which brings together 54 young science, technology, engineering, mathematics and social sciences ambassadors who are passionate about demonstrating the impact of science on daily life in their respective countries.

The NEF has been endorsed by the African Union Commission, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the African Academy of Sciences, among other international bodies.