Seeking ways to improve Kenya’s PhD completion rate

Doctoral completion rates in Kenyan universities are too low, leading to concerns that the country will not meet its target of having a large pool of highly qualified professionals in academia, research and other specialised sectors of the economy in accordance with the aims of Kenya Vision 2030, the country’s development plan.

In a co-authored study, ‘Kenyan doctoral students’ success: Roles of motivation and self-efficacy’, Dr Hyrine Mueni Matheka, the head of planning and resource mobilisation at the Kenyan Commission for University Education, said the current graduation rate is 11%.

She noted that the increase in university enrolments in the past 10 years, from about 178,000 students in the 2010-11 academic year to the current 566,000 students, has put immense pressure on available PhD graduates to supervise doctoral candidates.

The Commission for University Education estimates that, for every 100 undergraduate students studying at university, only about two PhD students are being trained. This means the rate of transition from masters students to doctoral programmes is far too low.

“Efforts to increase PhD education in Kenya have been minimal and disjointed, yielding poor results as most academics with doctoral degrees at the universities continue being called upon to cover administrative duties, teaching, research and outreach roles,” Matheka said.

When the Commission for University Education realised two years ago that existing PhD graduates were being stretched to their limits, they indefinitely suspended a requirement that all university academic staff at lecturer level should have a doctoral degree.

When examining graduation datasets from the commission, Matheka found that universities were producing fewer than 300 PhD graduates annually.

Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has set guidelines for a doctoral completion rate of 20% and graduation in three years but, on average, students are taking six years to complete their studies.

Key barriers to completing doctoral studies include funding constraints, supervision challenges and inadequate support programmes and facilities for postgraduate students.

Self-sponsored students, who make up about 92% of the total PhD candidates, have been dropping out in large numbers.

According to Matheka, more than 90% of doctoral students in Kenya were married, suggesting that family financial commitments contribute to the low graduate completion rate.

The study noted that 94.5% of doctoral students were employed full-time, while 3.8% were part-time employed, 1.2% self-employed and 0.2% unemployed.

Start the programme to get a job

There were also indicators that suggest that doctoral completion rates are affected by the demands of the job market that often requires evidence of enrolment for a PhD only, as opposed to having completed the doctoral degree.

“Thus, many students are enrolling in PhD programmes merely to get the job positions, with no aims or plans to complete these degrees,” said Matheka.

Still, most of the interviewed students said they were both full-time employees and full-time students at the same time and had no financial support. That combination of factors could also explain the low graduation rate, as the students seem to have competing demands for their time.

Matheka noted that a delay in graduation for more than two years was the highest among full-time students at 72%, compared to part-time students at 69.5%.

The study suggests that being a full-time student in a Kenyan PhD programme was not a predictor of faster progress towards finishing the course. Matheka said many full-time students were found to be affected by the perceived abundance of time compared to their part-time counterparts, who had more commitment and better planning capabilities.

Interestingly, the study revealed that PhD students older than 46 appeared to progress faster with their programmes, as 14.3% of them were either on track or already graduated, compared to 9.7% of those aged 31 to 45 and 11.7% among those under 30.

The study also found that students in physical and life sciences and medical sciences progressed much faster and had the highest graduation rates, while applied sciences, humanities and social sciences had the least successful PhD students.

Trying to pinpoint the challenges of finishing a doctoral degree in Kenya in terms of student characteristics and discipline areas has not been easy, particularly because some students graduate after being in the system for a long time.

Most of these delayed PhD students had not been willing to formally withdraw from their studies, and neither had universities been willing to deregister them.

Despite these shortcomings, and by relying heavily on secondary data, the study does provide a baseline for interventions on how PhD education in Kenya can be improved, especially in terms of academic supervision, financial support, and the motivation of students.