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A new six-country study examines the challenges of growing much-needed PhD graduates in Africa.

Sub-Saharan African countries need to increase the production rate of PhD graduates and substantially improve investment in doctoral education,according to recommendations emerging from a six-country study examining the PhD landscape in the region. While there is little disagreement about the need for more PhDs in Africa, experts say caution is needed on the issue of how such expansion takes place.

The report Building PhD Capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa, produced jointly by the British Council and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in cooperation with the African Network for Internationalisation of Education and University College London Institute of Education, builds on two key studies – the joint International Association of Universities and Catalan Association of Public Universities report, and the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) 2014 report focusing on flagship African universities.

Countries covered in the report include Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. The report aims to widen the evidence base on PhD provision “using national-level data, and to take into account doctoral training provision in a cross-section of diverse institution types”.

It also seeks to address gaps in areas such as format and conditions of provision, patterns of engagement between PhD programmes and industry, the private sector, the community and policy-makers.

In addition to expansion of PhD production and increased investment, the report makes a further six recommendations:

  • Quality of programmes must not be jeopardised in the context of rapid expansion;
  • Higher education systems need to seek a balance between concentration and diffusion of doctoral programmes;
  • Countries should aim for a broad disciplinary spread in doctoral studies;
  • Strong linkages should be developed between universities, communities, industry and government;
  • More extensive and more reliable data must be collected to inform policy-making around PhD provision;
  • International partnerships can play a pivotal role in strengthening PhD provision.
Student support

While the report notes the importance of retaining quality in the face of expansion, there are concerns about how this is to be achieved.

"I am deeply concerned about the quality of the doctorate that countries in Africa are pushed to produce in increased numbers and in shorter time," said Chaya Herman, a professor in the department of education management and policy studies of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

"Doctoral students need a very strong support in research methodology and academic writing and they need to expand their methodological and theoretical knowledge," Herman said.

"This could be enhanced by national and international collaborations with a reliable process of accountability. The duration of the doctorate should not be limited to three years and funding needs to be adjusted accordingly.”

The role of knowledge production

In the context of PhD expansion, foregrounding the role that high-level knowledge production plays in the promotion of the public good serves as an antidote to the potential for quality lapses, according to Sioux McKenna, who is director of postgraduate studies at Rhodes University, South Africa.

"Chasing after metrics may well come at the cost of both quality and integrity and so we need to constantly foreground the role that this high level of knowledge production plays in the promotion of the public good,” said McKenna, who is a co-author of the 2018 report Going to University: The influence of higher education on the lives of young South Africans.

International linkages

As the British Council-DAAD report notes, international partnerships can play a pivotal role in strengthening PhD provision, and this was acknowledged by experts.

JumaShabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, said any model of doctoral education “must involve the participation of international experts through the use of information and communications technology.

"One of the major challenges of doctoral education in Africa is that African universities do not have a critical mass of experts able to supervise doctoral theses in all areas of scholarship.

"These models could include co-supervision of doctoral students through the use of video-conferencing technology platforms, the participation of doctoral students in virtual workshops and their increased access to virtual libraries and virtual classes," Shabani said.

Additionally, doctoral candidates need access to research facilities at national and international levels and to academic publications and journals where they can publish their findings, he said. "On that note, Open Science [a movement to make scientific research, data and their dissemination available to everyone] plays an important role."

Source: University World News

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