The Western PhD model is not entirely suitable for Africa

Never before in the contemporary period has the doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) become an imperative discourse in African development. In his recent article in University World News Elias Ngalame states that among African governments, policy experts, politicians, academics and international development agencies there is agreement about the need for African universities to produce more PhDs.

So far, the rationale for increasing the production rate of PhDs in Africa may be summarised below:

Africa needs more innovative researchers to diagnose and produce African-based solutions for its development challenges such as political instability, youth unemployment, democratic governance, poverty, affordable housing, climate change, diseases and food insecurity. Most of these problems, as Elias Ngalame points out, could be solved through quality research in technology science, engineering, economy, industry and innovations in agriculture.

There is a need to produce innovative technologies and quality public policies to spur economic growth and development to improve the human conditions on the continent.

University lecturers who are PhD holders will improve the quality of higher education and foster innovative policies and practices to improve teaching pedagogies, learning resources and student learning growth in pre-tertiary institutions.

A critical mass of intellectuals will serve as a vanguard for the social, economic and political development of the African continent.

Traditional PhD model

In the discourse on PhDs as an imperative instrument for African development, what is conspicuously absent is how PhDs should be produced in order to achieve the outcomes enumerated above. From the inception of the PhD degree, African universities have adopted the traditional Western model of PhD education and training without any modifications or tweaks.

The traditional model of PhD consists of four stages. The first is the course stage which involves students attending course lectures and seminars not only in their subject areas but also in other elective areas of interest.

The second is the dissertation proposal stage. At this stage, doctoral students develop proposals for their intended dissertation, showing the rationale behind their research topic, their methodology, including reviews of the scientific literature, instruments for data collection and methods for data analysis.

Dissertation proposals may be submitted to dissertation supervisors for feedback or presented to a committee of experts for approval and feedback. During the course and dissertation proposal stage doctoral students, especially full-timers, may also work as research or teaching assistants. In some cases, they may be allowed to teach undergraduate level courses.

Next comes the dissertation writing stage. This is the stage at which doctoral students collect and analyse data, structure and write their dissertations. At this stage they may concentrate fully on writing their dissertations and disconnect from other things. As they write they may submit chapters to their supervisors for feedback.

The final stage of the dissertation journey is defence. Supervisors will schedule an oral dissertation defence session moderated by a group of expert evaluators. During this session the experts will pose a series of questions to doctoral students related to their dissertation. If the evaluators unanimously agree that the dissertation is satisfactory, the doctoral candidate’s name is sent out to the registrar to be included in the next graduating student cohort.

The traditional model is aimed primarily at preparing candidates for teaching and research employment opportunities in academia and in state bureaucracy. I agree with Elias Ngalame that other sectors of society, such as private enterprises, do not tend to benefit from the doctoral graduates that are produced. In addition, teaching and bureaucracy may not dovetail with the career interests and aspirations of some doctoral graduates.

It is my view that the adoption of the traditional Western model of PhD education and training, without adaptations or tweaks, will not assist African countries to achieve all of the above desired outcomes. African universities need rather to craft and implement a new model of PhD education and training in alignment with the needs and challenges of African society and economy.

This model will integrate some essential elements of the traditional Western model while adding other desirable features.

Three streams

Given the contextual realities of African society and economic issues, an African model of PhD education and training should consist of three streams: a teaching and research stream, a policy and consultancy stream, and an entrepreneurial and economic stream.

The teaching and research stream would be for PhD students who have inclinations to take up teaching in academia alongside research. They will teach higher education students, prepare teachers, head teachers and leaders of schools; write textbooks and other teaching resources, conduct research into the education system; and critique and create educational practices, teaching pedagogies and assessment modalities.

The policy and consultancy stream would consist of PhD students who will conduct policy research into all sectors of society, provide policy advice and recommendations to public policy makers, business leaders and organisations, including cultural organisations; perform policy analysis and research; serve as experts in policy formulation and implementation; and evaluate projects and programmes for efficiency, viability, effectiveness, and cultural relevance.

The entrepreneurial and economic stream would consist of PhD students who want to develop products and services from the laboratory to the market; identify and develop markets for goods and services; analyse markets for profitability and break-even output; establish businesses; evaluate human resources productivity; deploy human, material and capital resources; design, implement and monitor budgets; examine and evaluate business venture proposals; and offer business advisory services, including a critique of business practices.

Students in all the streams would attend courses and seminars. However, teaching and research stream students would write traditional dissertations while others would only do capstone projects with the purpose of identifying, diagnosing, crafting and implementing specific solutions or improvements.

Students in the teaching and research stream would also be required to take a compulsory course in teaching and pedagogy. In addition, before students finish writing their dissertation or capstone projects, they would be required to publish at least two articles in recommended academic and professional journals based on their dissertation or capstone project.

The capstone project would consist of identifying and solving a real local, community, national or institutional problem that exists now or will exist in the near future. It could also be the development of a product or service that has a real value for a community, locality or organisation.

Furthermore, another important feature of the proposed African model of PhD is that students in all the streams would be required to undertake an internship of six months in their fields, industry or profession.

An internship is short-term work experience offered by organisations in the private, public and voluntary sectors of society. Its primary purpose is to allow doctoral candidates to gain valuable practical work experience, get exposure to the conditions and intricacies of a particular field or industry and develop both hard and soft skills.

Strategically, internships should be organised in such a way that PhD candidates spend their time working on relevant projects and programmes, learn and explore the field and make industry and professional connections.

Role of practitioners

Who should teach PhD students in the African model? I suggest people with a range of expert knowledge and skills are qualified to teach PhD classes and seminars.

Active researchers, professional practitioners, academics with a track record of publications, and seasoned entrepreneurs all have valuable contributions to make to PhD education. From my perspective, in the African model PhD education and training should not be left entirely to academics; professional practitioners have a critical role to play.

Though I have suggested three streams of PhD, several variations could be derived and developed. It should be rationally determined whether PhD students will write traditional dissertations or develop capstone projects. PhD students should learn the craft of communicating their ideas or perspectives to a community, the general public and the professional community in written and oral formats. Thus, a decision should be made in accordance with the relevant context if a minimum of one publication is enough.

It should be stressed that a PhD programme should be developed according to the contextual needs and realities of each African country. Though African countries share common cultures, some countries are economically and socially more developed than others.

Lastly, the main purpose of this proposed African PhD model is to start a productive conversation on what model of PhD is suitable for the African economy and society.

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