New online course helps to plug doctoral supervision gap

A new online course for doctoral supervisors is aimed at building the capacity of higher education staff in the face of growing demand for PhDs throughout the African continent and concomitant low completion and high student dropout rates.

The Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) and the Centre for Higher and Adult Education, both at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University in South Africa joined forces to develop the course.

“If you want PhDs, you need supervisors,” Professor Jan Botha, one of the training facilitators based at CREST, told University World News.

Africa’s enhanced participation in the global knowledge economy calls for many more talented Africans who have been educated to the highest academic levels, and individuals who understand the socio-economic challenges of African countries, and are committed to the development of the continent, he said.

Botha said the link between the availability of high-level talent, PhD graduates and enhanced socio-economic development has been argued convincingly by academics such as Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells.

In Africa it has been driven forward by initiatives such as the World Bank’s African Centres of Excellence project and regional collaborations such as the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), he said.

PhDs as requirement for lecturers

Several African countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, have introduced policies requiring a PhD for employment as an academic staff member at a university, moves which have triggered increased enrolment into PhD programmes, resulting in the need for more well-prepared doctoral supervisors at African universities, said Botha.

“We chose online learning for this course because professors do not have time, it saves a lot of money as people do not have to travel across the continent to come to the university for training, and it is flexible,” he said.

The idea for a doctoral supervisor’s course was mooted at the Dialogue on Innovative Higher Education Strategies Programme organised by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in collaboration with the Inter-University Council for East Africa in Nairobi in September 2016.

DAAD provided US$340,000 to run the programme over three years. The first course, presented over eight weeks, ended in February and the first cohort of 151 graduated in February. They were drawn from 24 countries across all the major regions of Africa. The largest group of participants was from Kenya at 19% of the cohort, followed by South Africa (16%), Nigeria (12%), Uganda, and Ethiopia and Zimbabwe at 8% each.

Topics and modules

The course consists of six modules followed by a written assignment. Topics covered in the modules include the need for and the state of the doctorate in Africa, the purpose of the doctoral degree, doctoral qualifications standards in Africa and other parts of the world. In addition, the roles and responsibilities of supervisor and student, models of supervision, and the selection and admission of doctoral candidates are explored.

The allocation of doctoral supervisors, supervising the development of the research proposal, principles and practices of the responsible conduct of research, project management principles for supervision and examinations are also discussed.

The training is meant for people who are affiliated to a university in Africa, have a doctoral degree and have plans to supervise or are already supervising doctoral students.

Effort has gone into the preparation of the study materials and the on-line activities to ensure a focus on the needs and working conditions of supervisors at African universities, said Botha.

“Not many courses at African universities offer this kind of training, unless a student travels abroad,” he said.

Dr Neelam Fatmah Pirbhai-Jetha, one of the course participants and head of the Centre for Digital Humanities at the University of Mascareignes, the fourth public university in Mauritius, said PhD candidates are “often thought of as mature people who possess scientific independence, and therefore some supervisors tend to think that they do not need any support and can be left on their own”.

“However, to succeed, PhD candidates still need good quality supervision, including constructive feedback, a researcher group, and social and emotional support, among other things,” Pirbhai-Jetha told University World News.

Achieving ‘doctorateness’

It is the role and responsibility of the supervisor to prepare the students to achieve what many researchers call “doctorateness” and to help their careers in and outside of academia, she said.

“I think that this training has given me some essential tools to meet the needs of PhD candidates, and hopefully be a ‘mentor’ and a guide to them,” said Pirbhai-Jetha.

Dr Victor Onyebueke, a senior lecturer in the department of urban and regional planning at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (Enugu campus), said while the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) takes postgraduate supervision and supervisors seriously, the CREST course highlighted the extent to which the university was lagging behind in global best practices regarding panel and group supervision styles and engagement in inter-university doctoral programmes, he said.

“One key omission in all the UNN research policies and procedures, however, is the all-important issue of the supervisor-supervisee memorandum of understanding,” Onyebueke said.

“I can say for certain that my supervisory knowledge and skills have improved significantly after the course … I acquired completely new skills and honed old ones that I had mostly learned by induction from my own PhD supervisor,” he said.

The Zimbabwe experience

Although doctoral study enrolment is generally low in the sciences in Zimbabwe, a directive from the ministry of higher education in 2015 that all lecturers be PhD holders by 2020 or at least be registered by 2017, has seen a spike in enrolment, particularly from academic staff, according to Dr Noble Malunguza, a research fellow at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo.

His applied mathematics department has produced at least seven PhDs in the last decade, but all graduates have relocated, leaving the department with only one qualified PhD holder responsible for supervising four doctoral candidates.

“The recent graduates lack experience, leaving the onerous task of supervising doctoral candidates to only one experienced supervisor,” Malunguza said.

After the course, Malunguza believes he is ready for a doctoral supervisorial role.

“The technical nature of this training and insights from other universities across the continent provide the requisite technical knowhow necessary for doctoral supervision,” he told University World News.

As CREST prepares for the next instalment of the course in May, Botha said they have plans to invite 20 participants from the course for face-to-face interactions this year. In the meantime, CREST has also started working on making the course self-sustaining by the time the funding comes to an end in three years’ time.