How can universities meet rising demand for PhDs?

Higher education institutions have no choice but to adopt innovative methods of training if they are to produce sufficient numbers of doctorates to satisfy demand, delegates at the ninth conference of the African Network for Internationalisation of Education (ANIE) heard.

According to Goski Alabi, ANIE board chair and president of Laweh Open University College, Ghana, the demand for doctorates was growing throughout Africa due to expanding academic programmes, yet universities lacked the capacity to satisfy the demand.

“We see everywhere governments bringing in policy requiring all teaching staff to obtain PhDs, yet public universities cannot train enough doctorates,” she told the event, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya, from 2 to 4 October.

This, she observed, was worsened by the fact that the majority of private universities do not offer doctoral training, calling for innovative and more creative ways of both financing and learning to produce more doctorates.

According to Mariam Pahl of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Nairobi, while higher education across Africa was expanding, the same cannot be said of doctoral degrees, which also implied low research production in universities.

Training abroad

Many PhDs on the continent were earned abroad, partly due to low state funding and the general low capacity to train in African universities, among other challenges.

Citing the findings of a six-country study by ANIE researchers, funded by DAAD in partnership with the British Council, Building PhD capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa, Pahl said low research productivity in the context of the expansion of the university education sector and the growing socio-economic needs of African people calls for more focus on the production of PhDs.

“Low production of PhDs has several implications, including poor quality of university programmes, low innovation capacity, weak links with industry, and questions over relevance of the programmes,” she said.

According to the study conducted in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria, numbers of PhD-qualified staff varied from region to region. PhD enrolments as a proportion of the overall student population in Africa were relatively low: below 2% in Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, and slightly higher at 7.8% in Ethiopia.

“However, a shortage of PhD-qualified staff in universities was a salient feature in each of the countries, with their proportion of the overall staff ranging from 8% to 43%,” the study noted.

Most universities were young, and had not developed adequate PhD training capacity, especially in Ethiopia, Kenya and Senegal.

While national policy frameworks are important in guiding research and PhD training, they were found to be weak or non-existent in most of the countries.

“In most of the cases, the national research agenda is not clear and is contained in several different documents,” the study observed.

Other challenges included weak support in terms of facilities and infrastructure, a shortage of supervisors, and over-emphasis on teaching.

Universities that were found to have been relatively successful in training had developed alternative funding mechanisms.


It suggested innovative ways to overcome the challenges, top among them development of new PhD programmes, co-supervision of students, staff exchange and joint research initiatives, and tapping into the resource of Africa’s diaspora.

Others include new funding models such as the one used by DAAD (where students are funded to complete some or all of their doctoral degree locally) and the establishment of national research funds to support PhD research.

Strengthening of intra-African collaborations and networks such as the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) and the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) were also important.

Specialised institutions devoted to postgraduate education such as the World Bank-supported African Centres of Excellence initiative and the African Union’s Pan African University were also critical in boosting numbers.

Additionally, deploying technology more widely would help to overcome challenges and offer convenience to both students and supervisors, according to Sella Terrie Jwan of Moi University’s department of education.

These include electronic web-based learning, use of mobile devices in the teaching and learning processes, and use of ‘learning management systems’ – software and applications for administration, documentation, tracking, reporting and delivery of courses and training programmes.