Universities struggle to meet PhD and other targets

Kenya’s bid to build a critical mass of professors and produce at least 1,000 PhDs every year to drive the country’s economic ambitions risks failure following persistent deficiencies in postgraduate training and research.

It is estimated the country graduated only 700 PhDs in 2018. According to government statistics, the number of professors in public universities has risen by a measly 11% over the past five years while student numbers soared by over 70% during the same period.

A government scholarship plan announced four years ago is meant to produce the next generation of academics, alleviate the biting lecturer shortage and provide high-level skills for Kenya’s rapidly growing economy.

In 2016 the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology issued new regulations compelling universities to ensure that 25% of graduates each year are at postgraduate level, as government data shows that more than 90% of the nearly 25,000 people who graduate from universities annually are at undergraduate level and that the country has slightly over 400 full professors, 600 associate professors and fewer than 7,000 PhD holders.

Earlier this year the Commission for University Education directed all assistant lecturers to acquire a PhD degree by October to qualify to teach, or else lose their jobs. The Universities Academic Staff Union has challenged the directive in court, saying that its input was not sought before the regulations were crafted.

University of Nairobi

There are signs of progress in growing PhDs. The University of Nairobi, the country’s second biggest higher education institution, for example, said it produced 154 PhD graduates last year, the highest in the history of the institution and the biggest cohort produced by any university.

Researchers and educationists have blamed the shortfall of PhDs on a cocktail of challenges, among them constrained institutional capacity and lack of supportive policy. Students generally take longer to complete their degrees than expected and those who graduate, largely from the humanities, are being found wanting.

Last month the University of Nairobi launched an online system to monitor progress of postgraduate students in order to boost completion rates to 500 per year.

“We aim to boost postgraduate completion rates from the current 56% to more than 60%. We have found it a must to adopt a new system to enhance efficiency in the supervision process, progress and to track the completion rate,” said Professor Peter Mbithi, the university’s vice-chancellor.

The new system comes against the backdrop of a joint study by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the British Council launched last year which found that 90% of all students who enrol for PhDs do not graduate.

Those who do, take as many as six years on average to complete their degree owing to the fact that many are studying part-time. This is double the three years recommended by government.

Too few STEM postgraduates

The DAAD-British Council study also indicates that over 80% of postgraduate students are concentrated in the social sciences (business administration and arts), despite government policy aimed at producing more graduates in sciences, information technology and engineering.

According to Commission for University Education Chairman Professor Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha, students should have an eye on the requirements of the labour market.

“It is erroneous for parents and students to assume that certain degrees are a panacea for employment. In addition to pursuing their areas of specialisation, graduates should explore other marketable orientations to better their chances in the competitive job market, either as employees or self-employed,” Nyaigotti-Chacha said in a media briefing last month.

The DAAD-British Council study also found that most of the universities commissioned over the past 10 years have fewer than five professors and over half of the teaching staff in public universities do not have PhDs. This state of affairs is worse in private universities and newly formed state-funded institutions. In established universities, only 5% of the teaching fraternity are associate or full professors and 40% of academic staff hold doctoral degrees.

Lastly, the study found that the gender divide in postgraduate training was widening significantly, with a current ratio of male to female enrolment at 2:1. This is despite a government-backed push for gender parity in university training.