Towards a common standard for postgraduate training

A first-of-its-kind regional workshop intended to build capacity in the supervision of postgraduate studies was held last month in Kigali, Rwanda, as part of a broader process aimed at developing common standards for postgraduate training in the East African region and increasing the number of masters and PhD graduates.

The meeting was convened by the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA), with the support of German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the African Population and Health Research Centre – through its training programme, the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa. It brought together higher education actors from the East African Community partner states of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

According to Dr Helmut Blumbach, director of DAAD’s regional office in Nairobi, with support from DAAD, the IUCEA and an expert working group were preparing a draft document on regional East African standards and benchmarks for graduate training to secure the necessary quality of training and also increase ‘production’ of masters and PhDs.

Blumbach said there was no quality university education without sufficient numbers of well-trained PhDs. “PhD training is the engine room of the university system. If the engine splutters, universities will not meet expectations,” he said in a statement.

The expert working group met back-to-back with the Kigali workshop, which was held from 23-25 April.

Political process

After completion, the standards and benchmarks document will need to be adopted and enacted by the governments of the East African Community countries, Blumbach told University World News. While that process is expected to be finalised later this year, he said it was difficult to predict how long the political process would take.

He said the focus on quality assurance in graduate training follows the implementation of a regional quality assurance system comprising programme accreditation, peer review and training of quality assurance officers and peers, developed through a joint project of IUCEA, DAAD and the German Rectors’ Conference, bringing on board the national regulatory bodies and German universities as well.

“In 2016 we entered a second phase of collaboration with IUCEA with a focus on quality assurance in postgraduate training and supervision which is still ongoing,” he said.

The regional standards and guidelines on quality assurance for postgraduate studies is one of two projects that have been initiated in this regard, both of which are supported by DAAD.

Online training course

The other project involves the development of an online training course on graduate supervision expected to be ready by September or October this year. The course is being developed by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and the first cohort of participants from across Africa should be able to start their six-week tutored online training around that time.

The Kigali training workshop was attended by deans and directors of graduate schools from the region’s private and public universities, all of which struggle with the challenge of limited numbers of qualified lecturers and researchers to meet the demands of the ever expanding postgraduate and mentorship programmes.

“This consequently has had a negative impact on the universities’ capacity to sustainably educate the next generation of university lecturers and researchers,” Evelyn Gitau, director of research capacity strengthening at the African Population and Health Research Centre, said.

There was an urgent need to address this through harmonised standards and guidelines for postgraduate training, setting the minimum standards for training in the region, she said.

The Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) has developed a model for doctoral training that has been “tested and proven” in nine universities and seven African countries, she said.

“The model presents a template from which postgraduate schools can borrow ideas for strengthening postgraduate training in the region,” she added.

CARTA has been pursuing the goal of relaunching African universities as central actors in the production of rigorous high-quality research for Africa’s development, the director disclosed.

Other challenges

While a lack of supervision capacity at universities was regarded as a challenge, another challenge was the lack of a mechanism for selecting and evaluating competencies of supervisors, according to Eugene Mutimura, Rwanda’s minister for education.

The quality of supervisors is a problem that faces both well-resourced, established universities as well as the historically disadvantaged ones, and includes a lack of an “induction experience” for new supervisors, said the minister.

Universities lacked internal evaluation systems for measuring supervision competencies, and there is a dearth of an enabling departmental or institutional “culture to support effective supervision”, he said.

Other difficulties included overloaded supervisors who, besides supervising and teaching masters and PhD candidates, also served as heads of departments, deans and directors, according to Mike Kuria, deputy executive secretary of IUCEA.

In some cases, a lecturer would teach as many as 94 students while supervising as many as 10 graduate students – against an IUCEA recommendation of five masters students and a maximum of three PhD students, said Kuria.

While both the supervisors and the students presented challenges to high-quality training, some shortcomings were institutional and could only be tackled at institutional and policy levels.

On the other hand, Kuria noted, there existed systemic problems including modern technologies and the open and distance learning mode for research students.

Systemic problems also extended to making a distinction between academic, research and professional postgraduate degrees, as well as funding for postgraduate studies, he said.

Blumbach told the workshop that DAAD’s support of universities in the region produced a “win-win“ situation: “Our own universities and research institutions [in Germany] need strong ties and partnerships in this dynamic region.”