PhDs alone cannot solve Africa’s developmental challenges

The doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree or doctoral degree has become a topic of debate in African development discourse over the last decade. In fact, African governments, policy-makers and intellectuals share the view that PhDs are not only a vital part of building human capital but a potential driver of development on the continent.

For instance, during a meeting of African ministers of education in November 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda, ministers agreed to increase enrolment in masters degrees and doctoral degrees beyond the 8% annual enrolment mark.

In addition, the World Bank has consistently asserted that Africa needs more PhDs. This has resulted in calls for African universities to expand the production rates of PhDs. In University World News, reporter Maina Waruru refers to the World Bank’s recommendation for African universities to produce 100,000 doctorates over 10 years for the purpose of generating continent-based research to address African development challenges.

Economic growth

Economic growth is regarded as the total increase in the quantity of goods and services produced by a country over a period of time compared to a specific period of time. Economic growth is a significant concept because it has a direct bearing on both the cost and standard of living of the population of a country. For this reason, every nation state is striving to achieve more economic growth.

In her speech during the 2019 convocation at the Kampala International University, Mary Karoro Okurut, senior presidential adviser on public relations in Uganda, stated that the number of PhD holders in any country is a catalyst for economic growth. This suggests that more PhDs lead to more economic growth and a lesser number leads to lower economic growth.

Nevertheless, a PhD is not an economic magic wand that can instantaneously command economic growth from heaven. Nor could a PhD successfully command, for instance, the agricultural sector of Uganda or any African country to grow by 5%.

No doubt, PhDs are an invaluable tool in that the holders are assumed to be capable of designing and conducting scientific research, providing deeper insights into phenomena through data collection and analysis, managing projects, evaluating programmes, projects and policies and producing technological products aimed at solving specific societal problems.

These are mere assumptions; they do not necessarily represent what all doctoral graduates are capable of doing in the African context. It is important to note that PhDs in the Western world are capable of doing those things, but that does not necessarily mean that African PhDs are able to do similar things. Institutions, economic structures, industrial systems, educational facilities and infrastructures and traditional norms and beliefs are different in the two contexts.

Having said that, the ability of doctoral graduates to contribute to the economic growth of Uganda, for example, depends significantly on a number of factors. Among these factors are the quality of doctoral education and training, the type of doctoral programme specialisation, alignment between doctoral programmes and industry and the opportunities the government of Uganda has created to use doctoral graduates for the economic growth of the country.

Options outside academia

The most important thing to bear in mind is that doctoral degree programmes in Ugandan universities, like their counterparts in other African countries, are designed for academic-focused outcomes rather than industry-focused outcomes.

In other words, doctoral education and training programmes are exclusively based on collection and analysis of empirical data, writing dissertations demonstrating one’s excellent command of the colonial language, making and defending arguments and highlighting one’s subject-matter expertise.

No emphasis is placed on creative learning and acquiring strategic and transferable knowledge, skills and disposition to allow doctoral students to prepare effectively for a variety of career options outside of academia. This does not imply that academic development is inconsequential, but it suggests that doctoral graduates should balance their education and training with the development of social and cultural capital.

The perspective asserted above is not an abstract argument. For example, in January 2021, it was reported that a group of researchers from Uganda’s Makerere University who had conducted a study titled Capability Enhancement Project for Innovative Doctoral Education at Ugandan Universities, concluded that PhD graduates lack the practical knowledge and skills to make any meaningful contribution to the economy of Uganda.

Education quality is an elusive concept owing to its multiple conceptualisations and applications around the globe. Despite that, at the intuitive level, it may be taken to mean an education that equips its recipients with the knowledge, skills and values they require and their communities expect of them in order to have a good life.

In the same Kampala International University convocation speech of 2019 referenced above, Okurut was also quoted as saying that Uganda faces a shortage of PhDs and this negatively affects its quality of education. She states: “It is the PhD holders that initiate research, supervise postgraduates and lead in publications and innovation.”

Nevertheless, Okurut looks at quality education in a narrow way. She refers mainly to university education, leaving out primary, secondary and other forms of tertiary education as if they are insignificant.

Primary and secondary education are the anchors of formal education in Uganda and other African countries and they are crying out for innovation in teaching pedagogy, culturally relevant learning materials, progressive assessment modalities, effective models of school leadership and school-community relations to bring about growth in their students’ learning.

In addition, the developmental research projects that PhDs have conducted in Uganda are often left to gather dust and cobwebs on library and laboratory shelves. They are neither commercialised nor applied to Ugandan society or the economy for the benefit of the population.

As for PhDs leading innovation in Uganda, the least said about that the better. Okurut did not provide a shred of evidence of any innovative projects that PhDs in Uganda have either initiated or implemented successfully. Also, her narrative contradicts the report of the Makerere University researchers who concluded that PhDs do not make any significant contribution to the Ugandan economy.

PhDs are not a panacea

PhDs are not necessarily a panacea for African developmental challenges, but they can make valuable contributions to African society and the economy, provided their education and training are designed and implemented to achieve expected outcomes – and African governments are ready to create the necessary opportunities to utilise them. This requires some degree of national planning and coordination.

More recently, Dr Eusebius Mukhwana, the director general and CEO of the Kenya National Qualifications Authority, stated that African society and the African economy are not benefiting from doctoral graduates owing to five major factors: poor facilities for educating and training doctoral students; limited opportunities for utilising the expertise of doctoral graduates; ineffective supervision of doctoral students; outmoded management of doctoral programmes; and grossly insufficient funding for doctoral students.

His narrative implies that Africa could reap enormous benefits from doctoral graduates if those problems were solved. Nonetheless, those problems undoubtedly have a negative impact on the quality of African PhDs. Even if those problems were resolved, PhDs in and of themselves could not solve all the African development challenges without other conditions being in place.

In Mukhwana’s paper, he laments the lack of facilities and funding and poor supervision and management of doctoral programmes. But he does not say anything about the contents and delivery modalities of doctoral education and training in African universities.

However, it is important that we look at all sides of the issue. African universities need to develop and implement PhD programmes that can achieve the outcomes of knowledge, skills and values that their societies expect. In doing so, they cannot ignore or minimise the importance of developing social and cultural capital in favour of academic development.

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