PhD training – Why African government funding is needed

While international donor funding for PhD training programmes in Africa helps to accelerate progress and achieve results more quickly, financial contributions to such programmes by African governments are critical and have a range of long-term benefits, higher education experts suggest.

Aminata Sall Diallo, a professor of physiology at Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar in Senegal, and Ekua Bentil, an education specialist with the World Bank’s Africa region who works on the implementation of initiatives under the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET), told University World News it was important for governments to lead PhD training initiatives’ funding in order to enhance sustainable development.

The duo was speaking after the launch last month of 15 PhD training scholarships under the PASET Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF). The initiative, led by African governments, will see this inaugural cohort of scholars commence PhD programmes in food security, information and communications technology (ICT), and materials, minerals and mining engineering. The RSIF aims to train 10,000 PhDs in 10 years.

The training is offered at one of the RSIF’s four host universities: Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania; University Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Cote d’Ivoire; African University of Science and Technology, Nigeria; and Gaston Berger University, Senegal.

Commending RSIF, the experts said that through its PhD training, research grants and innovation grants, the initiative will help to address many of the challenges African countries are facing.

According to Diallo, the RSIF aims to raise about US$100 million from governments, the private sector, foundations and development partners for the programme. To date, Rwanda has contributed US$1 million and Kenya US$2 million to RSIF, and three others (Senegal, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire) have made firm commitments. Another group of countries, including Nigeria, Tanzania and Guinea, have expressed strong interest, she said.

“Although the region has many competing immediate priorities, if most of the African governments come together on initiatives like PASET and commit funds to it, yes, they can fund PhD training and higher education,” says Diallo.

Diallo, who is also a member of the Academy of Science and Technology of Senegal and special advisor to the minister of higher education and research of Senegal, said no single African government is capable of funding national higher education programmes (especially postgraduate initiatives) in all the areas needed to address development needs and to become globally competitive.

Hence the value of partnerships such as PASET. She also stressed the need for governments to create incentives for the private sector to participate as core partners.

Bentil said building good higher education programmes in applied sciences, engineering and technology fields can be capital intensive and thus having various types of funders was necessary.

Although Bentil and Diallo agreed that there was room for donor funding in the RSIF funding scheme, they said that it was important that African governments take the lead in funding the initiative.

“[With government funding, there] is also a stronger sense of ownership which increases the chances of the programme being sustainable,” said Bentil. African governments then also have a stronger hand in determining which programmes will receive allocations based on that country’s priorities, she said.

There was also an opportunity for capacity building, she said. African governments get to decide to whom they will entrust their contributions, and this has the potential to evolve into a scholarship programme based in Africa and managed using global best practices.

With the youngest population in the world, the experts say the continent is entering a new phase of economic development and its youth cannot afford to be left behind.

“Doctoral training is urgently needed across Africa to upgrade the qualifications of existing university staff, many of whom hold only masters degrees and are unable to teach at postgraduate level and may not be able to offer advanced teaching at undergraduate level,” said Diallo.

Doctoral training is also needed to expand the number of qualified researchers in the region, not only to work in the higher education and research sector, but in the industrial sector too.

Without a greater supply of highly educated, homegrown talent in areas such as agriculture, energy, extractive industries, construction, manufacturing and ICT, Diallo said that it will be difficult to develop innovative solutions to tackle Africa’s development challenges.