Africa needs more PhDs, but they must be of high quality

In a recent article by Maina Waruru, he reiterated the World Bank recommendation that African universities should produce as many as 100,000 PhDs over a 10-year period. These PhD holders, according to the author, are required to produce research for solving or providing insight into the development challenges plaguing the African continent.

These development challenges include job creation for the youth population explosion, disease, climate change, food insecurity and political instability. The article also argues that Africa needs a critical mass of intellectuals to analyse, discuss and comment continuously on the day-to-day issues on the continent.

It goes on to quote Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, who stated that the need for more PhDs in Africa is to increase research output, to drive development and address the continent’s multiple development challenges.

This view may be justified on the grounds that Africa has 198 researchers per million people compared to 428 in Chile, 4,260 in Canada, 4,269 in the United Kingdom and 4,663 in the United States.

Nevertheless, the article contains several assumptions, misconceptions and omissions that have far-reaching consequences for the development of researchers in the African continent.

Effective masters degrees

Effective masters degree programmes mark the beginning of a research career and the rudimentary development of the practices in a given professional field. Yet masters degree programmes are scarcely a part of the research discourse in Africa.

No wonder, the masters degree programmes offered in most African universities are weak, haphazard and second-rate. These programmes are not periodically reviewed or evaluated and do not have research as their core driver.

Student supervision, the most important component of the postgraduate degree journey, is desultory, owing to the fact that supervisors often lack basic training in the fundamental principles of effective thesis supervision.

Effective masters degree programmes provide a solid foundation for PhD or doctoral programmes. At the masters degree level, students are supposed to acquire the foundational knowledge and skills in research as well as in practitioner craft. The degrees lay down the building blocks for advanced knowledge, skills and practices at the doctoral level.

Weak masters degree programmes presuppose weak doctoral degree programmes. As one colleague told me some time ago: “If the foundation is weak, the superstructure cannot stand on it.” Thus, African universities need to design and deliver effective masters degrees as critical precursors for doctoral education and training.

More PhDs do not mean more researchers

It is erroneously believed that, if African universities produce more PhDs, the number of researchers on the African continent will rise.

This assumes that people enrol on PhD programmes with the exclusive purpose of becoming researchers. Longitudinal observations teach us that Africans enrol on PhD programmes for a variety of purposes, including research, teaching and job promotion.

The PhD or doctorate is the most coveted degree in the West Africa region because it is seen as the pinnacle of achievement in education and carries authority in one’s professional field. Some members of the clergy have even appropriated the doctorate title for status enhancement.

Indeed, in West Africa, the doctorate title is a veritable tool for enhancing one’s social status rather than being about acquiring advanced research knowledge, skills and the disposition needed to drive local or national development.

Unfortunately, this has increasingly led to intellectual ghettos, a community of doctorate holders who do not engage in any research or scholarly activities or intellectual conference-going.

What Africa really needs is an assortment of productive researchers motivated by state-sponsored incentives and altruism to produce continent-based solutions for African development.

What is an African model of PhD?

The PhD started in the Western world as an education and training vector for academic careers. Now national innovation and economic growth are also important drivers. But, what model of PhD education and training should drive development in Africa?

There are several models of PhD education and training around the world.

One model is the individual PhD. This involves an individual writing a scholarly dissertation under the supervision of a professor with expertise in a specific field. While the individual does not attend courses, lectures or seminars, they are required to produce and defend their dissertation before a panel of experts.

This model mimics exactly the apprenticeship system in that the student as an apprentice is placed under the tutelage of a master in the form of the professor. The model is most prevalent in Germany and Australia.

Another model, called the traditional or structured model, is common in North America, the United Kingdom and European countries. It entails the individual attending rigorous courses, lectures and seminars with fellow doctoral students.

The individual must produce a dissertation with the same scholarly and research vigour as the individual PhD under the supervision of an expert in the field and orally defend it before a committee of expert evaluators.

The PhD by publication and doctoral capstone projects are emergent models in the Western world. Their emergence can be attributed to a barrage of criticism levelled against the traditional PhD.

The PhD by publication incorporates all the features of the traditional model in addition to requiring the individual to publish an average of two to 12 articles in specified academic journals from their dissertation project. Most Chinese universities have adopted this model.

The doctoral capstone projects, on the other hand, involve intensive research and writing but primarily focus on developing innovative, implementable solutions to existing real-life problems. The individual has to demonstrate before a committee of experts how their proposed solution can be implemented. For example, a doctoral computer science student will identify a real-life problem and develop software to solve that specific problem.

It is crucial to note that every PhD education and training model has its own set of possible outcomes, even if it shares similarities with the others. As well, two or three models can be combined to achieve specific outcomes.

Thus, before an African university designs or adopts a PhD education and training model it has to map out its expected outcomes and compare them to what it expects its doctoral graduates to know, perform and possess by way of skills, knowledge, values and attitudes. That way, it can choose a suitable model.

What is an African model of the PhD that could drive development on the continent?

For some time now, African universities have adopted the traditional or structured model of PhD education and training of the Western world without any modifications or innovation.

Given the developmental challenges Africa is facing, the traditional model is inadequate to equip its doctoral graduates with the relevant knowledge, skills and values to drive development on the continent.

Certainly, doctoral graduates need research knowledge and skills, but they should also possess the competencies to formulate implementable solutions for local and national challenges, read and interpret research findings, take up leadership roles when it comes to confronting development issues, and document and disseminate indigenous knowledge.

Funding versus political will

Lack of funding is invariably blamed for low research output in Africa. It follows logically that, if African universities could access more funding, they would increase their research productivity.

Unfortunately, there is some truth in this assertion. Many factors contribute to establishing a research culture in an institution or a whole country. Leadership, motivation and incentives, collaboration and access to well-equipped laboratories and libraries are prominent among these factors.

Further, the plain fact is that African political leaders do not believe that research can make any significant difference in either solving African development challenges or providing insights into those problems. It is not a coincidence that the word 'research' is not part of the political or development discourse among African politicians.

If research production were of any value to African political leaders, they would definitely have the political will to make funding available to African researchers.

However, in the African context, research should be more than collecting and analysing data and using data to construct theories or make recommendations to solve development challenges. It should offer in-depth insights into identified issues and produce technologies that improve agricultural productivity, food preservation and affordability, and the general life of the population.

Quality matters for PhDs

As much as Africa needs 100,000 PhDs in the next 10 years or to expand its PhD production rates, it also needs quality PhDs. On learning of the need to expand the number of PhDs, some African universities may disregard their standards protocols in order to increase the production of PhDs.

This is reminiscent of what happened in 2013 when the Uganda National Council for Higher Education invalidated 66 doctoral degrees awarded by the Kampala International University, a private university, on the grounds that the university disregarded agreed academic protocols.

Furthermore, researchers in higher education share the empirical fact that quality dissertation supervision is indispensable to producing quality PhDs.

Dissertation supervisors, who are experts in their fields, will guide doctoral candidates through the field, choosing appropriate research methodology for the dissertation and reviewing the scientific literature and the entire structure of the dissertation.

Consequently, if an African university does not have experts or enough experts to supervise PhD candidates it should not be allowed to run PhD programmes.

By ‘expert’ I mean professors or lecturers who are PhD holders and active researchers or practitioners in their fields of specialisation (or interests) and possess the competencies needed to supervise doctoral candidates. Such criteria would disqualify many professors and lecturers, especially those in African private universities, from supervising doctoral students, but their implementation would result in the production of quality doctoral graduates.

Supervisor-doctoral student ratios are a critical component of quality doctoral education and training. The appropriate ratio depends on several factors. Crucial among these are student department support structures and the supervisor’s own experience and training.

Having said that, the rule of thumb with an enormous endorsement from stellar universities around the world, is that one dissertation supervisor should supervise a maximum of 10 doctoral students. Quality is compromised when a dissertation supervisor, as in many African private universities, has more than 10 doctoral students to supervise.

It is true that Africa needs more PhDs, but that does not mean that standard processes should be sacrificed on the altar of quantity.

Most private universities and other tertiary institutions in Africa are headed down the wrong path when it comes to PhD education and training programmes. This continues, owing to weak quality assurance regimes on the continent for regulating and monitoring PhD programmes.

In fact, it should be pointed out that training and developing PhDs takes time, effort, commitment and resources. It is not under any circumstances comparable to moving a product along the assembly line.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy expert in Canada.

Correction: This commentary article has been changed to correct a factual error. Previously it alleged that Kampala International University awarded 2,962 doctorates in 2019. University World News acknowledges that this figure is incorrect and apologises for the error.