The challenges of growing PhD graduate numbers

Sub-Saharan African countries need to increase the production rate of PhD graduates and substantially improve investment in doctoral education, according to recommendations emerging from a six-country study examining the PhD landscape in the region. While there is little disagreement about the need for more PhDs in Africa, experts say caution is needed on the issue of how such expansion takes place.

The report Building PhD Capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa, produced jointly by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in cooperation with the African Network for Internationalisation of Education and University College London Institute of Education, builds on two key studies – the joint International Association of Universities and Catalan Association of Public Universities report, and the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) 2014 report focusing on flagship African universities.

Countries covered in the report include Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. Released last month, it aims to widen the evidence base on PhD provision “using national-level data, and to take into account doctoral training provision in a cross-section of diverse institution types”.

It also seeks to address gaps in areas such as format and conditions of provision, patterns of engagement between PhD programmes and industry, the private sector, the community and policy-makers.

In addition to expansion of PhD production and increased investment, the report makes a further six recommendations:
  • • Quality of programmes must not be jeopardised in the context of rapid expansion;

  • • Higher education systems need to seek a balance between concentration and diffusion of doctoral programmes;

  • • Countries should aim for a broad disciplinary spread in doctoral studies;

  • • Strong linkages should be developed between universities, communities, industry and government;

  • • More extensive and more reliable data must be collected to inform policy-making around PhD provision;

  • • International partnerships can play a pivotal role in strengthening PhD provision.
Funding – Not the answer

According to South African higher education expert Johan Muller, recommending increases in resourcing – unlikely to occur under present circumstances – is not the answer.

"In my view, there are distinct reasons why doctoral education lags in Africa," said Muller, who is emeritus professor of curriculum and a senior research scholar at the University of Cape Town.

Muller told University World News that the report assumes that increased funding is the answer and “virtually all the other recommendations depend upon increased funding”.

“However, the prior question is: why is the funding so low? The answer has to be that the countries and their governments concerned do not prioritise advanced higher education in their development and governmental strategies for their countries," said Muller, who was also a member of HERANA.

"Until they do this, nothing will change," Muller said.

"Even if substantial funding were to be made available to higher education, there is no guarantee that doctoral education would improve, certainly not overnight.

"This is because there is a vicious cycle at work in the universities which will not be easy to reverse. The poor funding, the large classes and heavy teaching loads, the resultant student dissatisfaction and protests, all create a climate inimical for advanced research to flourish in the universities.

"Consequently, any academics serious about an academic career in research leave for a more propitious academic environment. With that, the talent needed to supervise at the requisite high level leaves overloaded and overworked, less research-focused academics to supervise.

"This does not produce the kind of environment to attract the brightest and the best, who also begin to look elsewhere for their doctoral studies. And once they leave, many of them will not come back," Muller said.

Student support

While the report notes the importance of retaining quality in the face of expansion, there are concerns about how this is to be achieved.

"I am deeply concerned about the quality of the doctorate that countries in Africa are pushed to produce in increased numbers and in shorter time," said Chaya Herman, a professor in the department of education management and policy studies of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

"Doctoral students need a very strong support in research methodology and academic writing and they need to expand their methodological and theoretical knowledge," Herman said.

"This could be enhanced by national and international collaborations with a reliable process of accountability. The duration of the doctorate should not be limited to three years and funding needs to be adjusted accordingly.”

Personalised approach

Against the backdrop of the report, experts also expressed concern at a “one-size-fits-all” approach to doctoral education. Charmaine Williamson, a research fellow at the College of Accounting Sciences at the University of South Africa, told University World News it is in the “personalised, one-on-one work that doctoral education is able to achieve the quality of knowledge generation".

"While much has been written systemically on doctoral education, and recommendations around macro structural and systemic issues abound, it is in the micro, daily lives of practice where doctoral education experts need to cast their lenses.

"My view is that indeed the opportunities recommended by the British Council report 2018 should be applied, but it will be an opportunity missed if we do not lobby around the need for individualised attention within doctoral education," Williamson said.

"This means improving the expertise of supervisors, ensuring a better student to supervisor ratio and also harnessing external academic advisors who may be part of ‘diving deep’ with candidates into their doctoral endeavours.”

She said a model aimed at achieving this and reported at the 2018 conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators UK held in Edinburgh from 4-7 June is currently being successfully implemented in the College of Accounting Sciences at the University of South Africa.

"[The model] covers the meta levels of structures and systems within the university itself, but, importantly ensures micro-level support for doctoral candidates who need specific detailed attention to their unique studies," she said.

The role of knowledge production

In the context of PhD expansion, foregrounding the role that high-level knowledge production plays in the promotion of the public good serves as an antidote to the potential for quality lapses, according to Sioux McKenna, who is director of postgraduate studies at Rhodes University, South Africa.

"Chasing after metrics may well come at the cost of both quality and integrity and so we need to constantly foreground the role that this high level of knowledge production plays in the promotion of the public good,” said McKenna, who is a co-author of the 2018 report Going to University: The influence of higher education on the lives of young South Africans.

"We need to greatly extend doctoral education across the African continent in the context of the knowledge economy, where it has the ability to contribute to the boundaries of intersecting fields, that is seen to be key to development. But while there is little debate about the need for such expansion, we must be cautious in how we go about it," she told University World News.

"We need to make sure we have clear means of measuring the quality of both the doctoral studies and the abilities of the candidates. We need to ask questions about the extent to which the development of knowledge at doctoral level is attending to the wicked problems that beset us as a planet. We need to be willing to honestly address the ways in which the expansion of knowledge production at this level might be perversely contributing to our current systems of social inequality and environmental degradation," McKenna said.

Pursuing a similar thread, Fareeda Khodabocus, director of quality assurance at the University of Mauritius and a member of HERANA, said the expansion of doctoral education should take into account the extent to which doctoral graduates are “contributing to the developmental needs of their own economies in the disciplines they have researched".

International linkages

As the British Council-DAAD report notes, international partnerships can play a pivotal role in strengthening PhD provision, and this was acknowledged by experts.

Juma Shabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, said any model of doctoral education “must involve the participation of international experts through the use of information and communications technology.

"One of the major challenges of doctoral education in Africa is that African universities do not have a critical mass of experts able to supervise doctoral theses in all areas of scholarship.

"These models could include co-supervision of doctoral students through the use of video-conferencing technology platforms, the participation of doctoral students in virtual workshops and their increased access to virtual libraries and virtual classes," Shabani said.

Alexander Hasgall, head of the Council for Doctoral Education at the European University Association, based in Switzerland, agrees.

"Europe can significantly contribute to the capacity building of doctoral education in Africa,” he said.

One practical example is the Yebo! Project through which the European University Association develops, together with its partners, training sessions to build institutional and supervisory capacity in South Africa.

"As in Europe, doctoral education is important in tackling challenges – particularly through interdisciplinary collaboration and the inclusion of early career researchers in international networks,” he said.

Additionally, doctoral candidates need access to research facilities at national and international levels and to academic publications and journals where they can publish their findings, he said.

"On that note, Open Science [a movement to make scientific research, data and their dissemination available to everyone] plays an important role."