How to produce more PhDs with supervision quality intact

Despite limited facilities, poor funding, non-payment of earned allowances and a troubling shortage of faculty, several universities in Nigeria are pushing to produce an appreciable number of PhDs to meet societal needs through quality research and development.

Top among the institutions producing more PhD graduates are the University of Ibadan (UI) in Oyo State; the University of Ilorin (UNILORIN), Kwara State; Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State; the University of Maiduguri, Borno State; and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in Kaduna State. Each of the universities has trained about 1,000 PhD students at a time, a local online news platform reported in 2022.

A 2022 Statista report revealed that, in 2019, 17,552 full-time PhD candidates – 11,673 men, representing 66.5%, and 5,879 women, representing 33.5% – were studying at Nigerian universities. Social Sciences accounted for the highest number of doctoral students, estimated at 3,000.

UI, Nigeria’s premier university and a member of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), is known for prioritising postgraduate studies, turning out an average of 400 PhD holders each year, according to the Postgraduate College deputy provost, Professor Ayodeji Ogunjuyigbe.

Efforts by UI and other tertiary institutions to scale up the doctoral degree output align with the World Bank’s recommendation that universities in Africa must, in the next 10 years, strive to produce about 100,000 PhDs – researchers who can respond to the challenges the continent faces in the areas such as youth unemployment, climate change, diseases, lack of food security and uncertain political stability, University World News reported earlier.

“Having many PhD students at a time is good but it comes with a challenge, because there are few lecturers in most departments,” Professor Arinpe Adejumo, the UI Postgraduate College deputy provost (academics), said.

“Many lecturers received better offers abroad. Some of them left their PhD students and they [the students] have to be distributed among the lecturers on the ground. A professor could supervise six PhD students in addition to six masters students, undergraduate students, teaching and writing papers,” she added.

Stringent supervision despite workload

Adejumo said that, despite the enormous workload, faculty go the extra mile, including assisting with their personal resources to groom upcoming researchers. The postgraduate college also organises workshops for PhD students to ensure top-notch research outputs.

“Yearly, we invite experienced researchers from South Africa to do the workshop for the PhD students. It is aimed at exposing them to how to do a literature review and position their work. At the departmental level, the students present seminars before lecturers.

“After the student has submitted his work, a desk officer at the postgraduate college will check the similarity index of the thesis to ensure that it is original and free from plagiarism,” she said.

It does not end there, Adejumo said. The research is further subjected to “the depth of thesis assessment”, whereby an academic with cognate expertise in the student’s area of study critiques the thesis.

“If certified, the student may be asked to do some corrections and he can then be examined. After the examination and oral defence, there is another check. So, the depth of the thesis is done twice to ensure the work is original,” she said.

Professor Michael Asuzu, dean of the University of Medical Sciences postgraduate school, Ondo State, said that, apart from the university’s rules, he set his own rules for PhD students to guarantee quality supervision.

“My students have limitless access to me day and night, but they have to be serious. I ensure they do their assignments and submit at the stipulated time. I also insist that 50% of their thesis must be published in an international journal, which means they have to be thorough. My students usually finish their programme in record time because they show commitment,” said Asuzu, a professor of medicine.

Asuzu advised that, where a supervisor does not have a firm grasp of the student’s research scope, there should be collaboration with faculty from other departments.

“If a student is researching an area that my speciality does not entirely cover, I invite a colleague from another department who has expertise in that field. For instance, I invited a professor of sociology to co-supervise one of my students who worked on natural family planning. These days, if you do research, it must not only impact knowledge but also policies,” he said.

Longer years of study

Doctoral degrees run for a minimum of three academic sessions in many Nigerian universities, but several students spend longer periods due to several factors. A doctoral student at the Kwara State University, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his thesis has stalled for over a year because his supervisor is busy.

“This is my fourth year. Delayed supervision is a killer of PhD candidates’ enthusiasm, particularly when supervisors fail to meet with their supervisees [the students] for a long time,” the student said.

But a research officer at UNILORIN, Professor Abdullah Adeola Adedeji, noted that in many cases, students are to blame for the delay. “They do not respond in time, perhaps because many of them are working. We have to push them. But, now, we make sure that, if you are not serious, we let you go,” he added.

Regional effort to scale up PhDs

At the regional level, one of the key objectives of ARUA, a network of 16 member universities from different countries in Africa, is to ensure that a minimum of 75% instead of 45% of the faculty of member universities have PhDs over a 10-year period, while also strategising for enhanced graduate training and support for PhDs.

The body acknowledges obstacles to the production of high-quality PhDs, include a lack of essential equipment and space for the sciences, especially at many universities, inadequate office space, few experienced professors to supervise PhD candidates, and a lack of funds to support PhD research.

To overcome these challenges, ARUA, in its 2022-27 strategic plan, promised to mobilise financial resources from several sources to support PhD work at member universities, and develop several interdisciplinary PhD programmes that address urgent development challenges.

It also pledged efforts to develop “split-site PhD programmes” to enable students to spend time at better-endowed universities in Africa, Europe, and North America.

“To prepare for the significant expansion and improved quality of PhD programmes, ARUA has already commissioned a review of the structure and conduct of PhD programmes at all member universities. It is expected that the review will provide significant new information to help in the design of new collaborative PhD programmes in the pursuit of the African University agenda. In that design, the harmonisation of quality standards in the award of doctoral degrees will be significant,” the document states.

Urgent need to recruit more academics

Having few professors to supervise hundreds of PhD students at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, means additional work for Zakari Abdulsalam, a professor of agricultural economics, who currently supervises 10 doctoral candidates.

“I spend weekends looking at my students’ work. I can count the number of Saturdays I do not go to the office. With at least 10 PhD students, it means I have to put in extra effort. It is a lot of sacrifice because we do not even get any allowances for the supervision. That is part of the reasons ASUU (the Academic Staff Union of Universities) has been going on strike,” Abdulsalam, who researches poverty and food security, told University World News.

“I ensure my students do the right thing to produce the best research. I always give the supervision my best because I don’t want to append my signature on any substandard work. The university, equally, has a quality enhancement process that involves inviting external examiners from a university in another region of the country. There are also internal examiners, some of whom are from another department related to the field of the student’s research.

“The ideal is to recruit more staff. Federal universities, for several years now, have not been recruiting academic staff. Professors are retiring without replacement, yet we have high student enrolment,” he added.

Adedeji, a civil engineering professor, said Africa can meet the World Bank recommendation of 100,000 PhDs and even surpass it – if there are more experienced academics to train potential researchers.

Haruna Lawal, spokesperson for the National Universities Commission, a regulatory body in Nigeria, said that, to increase PhDs, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund, or TETFund, has been mandated to award doctoral scholarships each year, adding that the commission organises the Nigerian Universities Doctoral Thesis Award Scheme to reward best work and encourage quality research outputs.