Funders predict changes to international postgraduate study

With the available international funding for doctoral training and research in Africa set to decline after COVID-19, experts are foreseeing a range of changes in how students conduct their postgraduate studies, with blended and sandwich options expected to be the new norm.

Funding changes may also determine where African students go for their postgraduate studies in future. Instead of going abroad, students could opt for universities on the continent to save money.

Students with scholarships could also be approaching their studies differently. They may meet their foreign supervisors virtually for a few months, then spend only a few months on face-to-face learning. In other cases, students will study abroad for a period and return to Africa to conduct research and write their theses.

These alternatives are expected to replace the popular mode of study whereby many students spend the entire period of training in foreign universities doing both coursework and research. These changes to postgraduate study and the funding thereof were discussed during a webinar hosted by the African Population and Health Research Center in conjunction with the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa.

Mentorship at home and abroad

Maria Teresa Bejarano of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) said the arrangement (of combining virtual and contact time) will ensure that elements associated with international training were not completely lost.

“As a funder, SIDA is in favour of the sandwich approach to doctoral and postdoctoral programmes. We need to keep a bit of both mobility and exposure no matter the cost,” she told the webinar titled “Funding Postdoctoral Training and Research Capacity Strengthening in Africa”. It was important, she said, that fellows got mentorship both at home and abroad, noting that it was crucial to expose them to different types of “life experiences”.

She was emphatic that despite the anticipated cuts in funding, “mobility out of university or home country cannot be replaced by virtual learning”.

She said that SIDA would continue supporting postdoctoral education within Africa’s higher education system, as well as building the capacity for scientific research. “Supporting PhD training in Africa is certainly one way of improving higher education in Africa,” she reiterated.

Andrea Johnson, the head of Higher Education and Research in Africa and Peacebuilding in Africa at the Carnegie Corporation of New York said fellows got mentorship both at home and abroad, noting that to attract funding, universities needed to design their models for training based on their individual priorities to win limited available funding.

In funding higher education programmes in Africa, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has always faced the dilemma of “investing in one person and reaching fewer people” in view of limited available funds, she said.

So far the corporation’s funding policy encouraged postdoctoral fellows to apply for residency within Africa, with short stays outside the continent. This optimised available money, while allowing for opportunities to develop research collaborations with the continent. “So far there is very little intra-Africa research collaboration, thus mobility within the continent is very limited,” she observed.

While there was not enough money to go around and “an oversupply of potential students”, some institutions such as many universities in South Africa tended to be more competitive than most on the continent. This could disadvantage smaller universities, according to Dr Alphonsus Neba, the deputy director of programmes in science support and systems at the African Academy of Sciences.

This called on funders to be careful in allocating funds to ensure there was a balance between “excellence and equity”, as exemplified by the case of South African universities when compared to institutions in the rest of Africa. Being able to manage grants and implement programmes properly and overall good financial governance, he noted, will impress funders and build confidence in them to continue their support even in times of scarcity, he said.

Engage African philanthropist

Dr Evelyn Gitau, the director of research capacity strengthening at the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), said the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), a training programme of the APHRC that focused on training postdoctoral fellows picked from faculty in universities, had returned encouraging results over the years.

“Our focus on offering fellowships to people who are already faculty has seen a higher retention of the scholars in Africa even after training abroad,” she disclosed.

With the arrival of COVID-19, the element of networking among CARTA fellows was getting lost, and as a consequence less joint publishing was being witnessed. This is compared to before the pandemic when physical contact was the norm.

The webinar heard that the anticipated reduction in funding from traditional donors will mean that institutions will have look at existing fundraising strategies again. This would involve tapping more into African philanthropy, governments and the private sector for doctoral and research money.

According to Neba, “a lot of policy change and advocacy were needed to force African governments to fund doctoral education and scientific research”.

Such changes could involve multilateral lenders including a condition that a percentage of the money saved from debt relief be channelled to research, or that debt relief itself be based on how much a government was funding research, he suggested.

Johnson agreed, saying it was time to engage African philanthropists by educating them on the importance of research, and demonstrate to them how it could contribute to development, for international peace and security. She warned that it was not safe for Africa to continue to rely on the West.