Uganda needs a comprehensive PhD education strategy – Study

A comprehensive national strategy to develop doctoral education and training in Uganda is urgent – and may also be needed in other African countries.

“Doctoral education ought to be integrated with the implementation of the overall national development strategy which is hinged on science, technology, research and innovations as the leverage for attaining global competitiveness and middle-income status,” said Dr Irene Etomaru.

Etomaru, Fred Edward Bakkabulindi and Tom Darlington Balojja, are the authors of the study, ‘Trajectory of doctoral education and training in Uganda’ published in February in the journal Higher Education.

In pursuit of sustainable development, development actors in Africa have been calling on the public and private sectors to invest in the capacity to provide doctoral education and produce researchers who can find local solutions to challenges facing the continent.

The importance of PhD training on the continent is emphasised by formal declarations such as the Kigali Communique of 13 March 2014, whereby the governments of Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda agreed to increase PhD output and the Dakar Declaration of March 2015, in which African governments committed to increase PhD training to build capacity in research, science, technology and innovation.

But, despite efforts across the continent to produce more PhDs, the output is still low, and stark inequities exist in doctoral training with regard to gender, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM subjects versus the arts, humanities and social sciences, as well as private versus public providers, according to the findings of the study in Uganda. It examined state doctoral awards over the past four decades in Uganda.

Funded by donors

The researchers say that, despite very low doctoral capacity in Uganda, there is no national initiative to expand and develop doctoral education and training with the agenda for doctoral education largely funded by donors and development agencies such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, the Norwegian Programme for Capacity Development in Higher Education and Research for Development, or Norhed, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, or Sida.

According to Etomaru, the study’s principal investigator, about 50% of the PhDs obtained between 2000 and 2010 were acquired outside Uganda with funding from development partners agencies. Etomaru, who is a lecturer at Makerere University’s College of Education and External Studies, said that donors often set the agenda for doctoral research, which may not align well with national priorities.

“This study examined the state of doctoral education and training in Uganda over the past four decades, given that the trajectory of doctoral education and training in Uganda is under-documented and relatively unknown,” said Etomaru.

Private universities’ PhD output

The researchers found glaring gender inequality in doctoral awards in universities in Uganda, where only 23% of the 1,025 PhDs awarded by public universities between 1970 and 2020 were awarded to female candidates.

Doctoral training is mainly done in public universities with only 172 PhDs awarded by private universities since 2001, when the Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) became the first private university to award a doctoral degree.

STEM courses receive the lion’s share of doctoral awards in Uganda in public universities, accounting for 68% of the 1,025 PhDs awarded between 1970 and 2020.

On the other hand, private universities have concentrated on awarding doctoral degrees in the arts, humanities and social sciences. For instance, none of the 14 PhDs awarded by IUIU between 2001 and 2019 were in STEM fields, while only 16% of the doctoral degrees awarded by Kampala International University between 2011 and 2020 were in the STEM fields.

“We argue that the trends in equity and number of doctoral awards translate into the low number of researchers per million inhabitants,” the article stated.

Etomaru told University World News in an interview: “Having inequalities in the national system of doctoral education and training is an educational constraint on research and innovation possibilities. The equity trends uncovered by this study translate into disparity in researchers’ participation in research and development and innovation-induced development, with deterring implications for the attainment of national development goals.”

The gender disparity, she added, depicts a wide attainment gap between women and men in doctoral programmes and translates into under-representation of women in the participation in research, innovation and development.

According to a 2021 UNESCO report, 70% of researchers in Uganda were males by 2014 and Etomaru said that, despite an increase in the number of female scientists in the country, “the gradient of female exclusion in research and development is pronounced in Uganda”.

The disproportionate participation of women in research and innovation-induced productivity growth, she argued, deters progress towards attaining the national goals of gender parity.

Furthermore, the researchers say that the skewed doctoral training and research capacity in favour of STEM fields in public universities “limits opportunities of bridging silos across disciplines to address complex development challenges through cross-disciplinary research approaches”.

But Etomaru argued that, despite the dominance of STEM fields in doctoral awards in public universities corresponding to the national demand for STEM, “this dominance is likely largely driven by donor funding agendas, but not deliberate planning at the national level”.

On the other hand, she said that their study findings imply that private universities in Uganda only have capacity for doctoral education and training in the relatively low-cost arts, humanities and social sciences.

“Private universities need capacity-building support if they are to successfully undertake doctoral education and training in both STEM and arts, humanities and social sciences. Research in both STEM and arts, humanities and social sciences is essential for the development of the much-needed locally relevant knowledge and, therefore, fundamental to the attainment of all the national development goals,” said Etomaru.

It is against this backdrop that Etomaru has called for an urgent comprehensive national strategy to develop doctoral education and training in Uganda – and Africa, as the findings of the study may also be relevant to other countries.

Are challenges curtailing development?

According to Dr Florah Karimi, the programme manager for the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) of the Nairobi-headquartered African Population and Health Research Centre, the study confirms low levels of doctoral training across Africa.

This, she expounded, can be largely attributed to individuals and institutions lacking funds to support doctoral training.

“While basic education (early childhood education, primary education, secondary education) has been prioritised as free education in many countries in Africa, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, this is not so for university education, where investments decrease as one moves from one level to the next,” said Karimi.

Additionally, she told University World News that lack of concerted national efforts towards adequate investment in doctoral training in Africa further widens the gap between the rich and the poor, as only those who have personal funds can access doctoral education, with the poor relying on limited external fellowships and grants.

Karimi asserted that the drive to pursue doctoral training at the expense of job and business opportunities could also be a factor curtailing the growth of doctoral training in Africa.

“The balance between family, work and doctoral studies in most cases is skewed towards family and work, at the expense of doctoral training, unless grants are availed to cushion the individuals from adverse effects as they pursue the balance,” she said.

She called for an appreciation of research and its impact on the development agenda, as lack of this could also contribute to the low capacity in doctoral training, whose greater part constitutes research work.

“One of the factors that led to the formation of CARTA was the recognition that there was a scarcity of a robust research and training infrastructure capable of attracting, training and retaining the continent’s brightest minds.

“The significance of sufficient doctoral training in the research-innovative ecosystem in Africa is [about] having an increased pool of high-quality academics to influence academia and research emanating from African universities, and developing high-quality human resources to support the research and development agenda in Africa,” she said.