How To Improve The Quality Of Africa’s Doctoral Education

An Unsuitable Research Environment And Ineffective External Quality Assurance Affect Quality Of Doctoral Education In African Universities.

By Eric Fredua-Kwarteng

For the past decade doctoral education in African universities has been the subject of sustained interest by researchers, policy-makers, educators and scholars. A specific case in point is Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai’s article published in June last year in University World News. He Highlights How Inadequate Funding, Poor Supervision, Lack Of Supervisor Qualifications, An Unsuitable Research Environment And Ineffective External Quality Assurance Affect The Quality Of Doctoral Education In African Universities.

Doctoral education for what?

A crucial first step towards quality doctoral education in African universities is specifying clearly its core purposes. The core purposes may not be the same for every African country, but African countries share many similarities. This is important in that some African intellectuals have different perspectives on the issue.

For example, in her article titled “Unmasking the doctorate”, published in University World News on 21 April 2017, Sioux McKenna views the doctorate not as a driver of research or innovation related to development, but as a public good. For this reason, she rejects the economic instrumentality of the PhD or doctorate and its attributes as a dominant driver of economic innovation.

However, from Mohamedbhai’s article it may be deduced that in Africa doctoral education is needed to enable the continent to increase its university-related scientific research output. The second objective of the doctorate, according to Mohamedbhai, is to enhance the quality of university degree offerings. To that end, a number of African universities have put policies in place to ensure that their lecturers or professors without doctoral degrees take the necessary steps to obtain their doctorate.

Further, Mohamedbhai attributes the low scientific research output of Africa to the low number of PhD or doctorate holders among university lecturers and professors. This implies that if the number of PhD or doctorate holders among university lecturers and professors increases, the rate of scientific research output in Africa will increase. This suggests the two phenomena are linked and that the number of PhD or doctorate holders is the causal factor. And, of course, many other scholars and researchers inside and outside of Africa share this mantra. Nonetheless, this is a theoretical idea without any concrete empirical basis.

Another theoretical argument is that lecturers and professors with PhD or doctoral degrees enhance the quality of teaching and for that matter the quality of degree offerings. In fact, effective teaching increasingly depends on three crucial factors: Knowledge of the discipline, knowledge of teaching methods and human relations skills. While the process of obtaining a doctorate could entail teaching university courses, mastering the theoretical and practical craft of teaching has never been a component of doctoral education and training.

Even in the Global North, I have come across lecturers and professors who are experts in their fields of specialisation in terms of research and publication but are grossly ineffective teachers. Across the African continent, increasing the number of PhD or doctorate holders has become a priority in national strategies for development.

For example, in a 2014 forum on higher education co-organised by the World Bank and the Government of Rwanda, the representatives of the five participant countries, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda, issued a collective declaration: “It’s fundamental for Africa to increase PhD programmes in the continent and continue to engage in partnerships that increase the number of PhD holders in Africa.” Any strategic plan to increase the number of PhD or doctorate holders should be regarded as one of the series of steps to increase Africa’s scientific research output or enhance its university teaching. It should never be considered as an end in itself.

Evidence-based policy

A second step towards quality doctoral education is to convert African political leaders, policy-makers and university lecturers and professors into believers in scientific research as a tool for knowledge creation, assessing the validity of scientific claims and producing evidentiary bases for problem-solving or policy formulation and implementation. Indeed, African government leaders who have faith in the viability of scientific research are more likely to allocate funding for that purpose, to use researchers for problem identification and data for policy formulation and execution.

In fact, the social construction of the PhD or doctorate in Africa, particularly in the western sub-region, is not associated with scientific research production, innovation or quality of teaching. On the contrary, it is associated with enhancement of one’s social status. That is why predominantly in that sub-region the clergy of Pentecostal, evangelical and charismatic churches have appropriated the doctoral title. That also explains why some Africans are prepared to purchase PhDs or doctorates from fraudulent online universities at a hefty price.

Though the PhD or doctorate is supposed to be functionally a productive tool, it has become a means to attain social recognition or to enhance a person’s image in Africa. The third step is how to provide incentives, financial, symbolic and otherwise, to motivate scientific research producers in African universities. Until these issues are effectively addressed, merely increasing the number of PhD or doctorate holders in Africa won’t increase Africa’s scientific research production – neither will it drive national innovation in Africa, enhance the quality of university education or increase Africa’s participation in the global knowledge economy.

Certainly, Africa needs quality PhD or doctorate holders in all sectors of its society and economy, not only in the university sector. Accordingly, defining doctoral programmes exclusively in terms of academia’s needs deprives other critical sectors of a much-needed pool of quality human resources. As a matter of fact, some PhD or doctorate holders should be effective practitioners in their own fields of specialisation. They need not themselves design and carry out scientific research studies, but they should be adept as interpreters, critical consumers and innovative implementers of scientific research findings.

The design and implementation of doctoral programmes in African universities need lots of thought and careful planning if doctoral education is to be made part of development plans. With a clear idea of the core purposes of doctoral education programmes, the knowledge and competencies expected of doctoral graduates will be incorporated into doctoral programme structures, including course offerings. This will also help in suggesting whether doctoral programmes are fully funded, partially funded or zero funded, according to a specific country’s needs. PhD or doctorate assessment modalities will also depend on the core purposes of doctoral education.

The old transplant approach to education programme design in African universities that involves merely imitating Western university course contents and structures has been the bane of African development. This does not suggest that we should discourage a global look at doctoral education programmes with a view to learning from those of universities in other countries.

The centrality of the masters programme

The masters degree programme is a critical foundation for the development of doctoral education programmes. In the West African sub-region, masters programmes are divided into two types: research and non-research. The research-based masters programme requires students to complete a thesis as a capstone project. The non-research masters does not have this requirement. Students only complete the required courses needed for graduation.

Students who have completed a research masters programme with the required grade point average (GPA) are accepted into a doctoral programme. In other jurisdictions, the completion of a masters programme with the prerequisite GPA is a requirement for admission into a doctoral degree programme. Despite the variations in admission standards, a well-designed and effectively delivered masters degree programme contributes immensely to the quality of a doctoral education programme. This is because a doctoral programme should as a matter of logic help students to advance knowledge and skills they started developing in their masters programme.

However, masters degree programme pedagogy, contents and delivery modalities in some African universities leave much to be desired. I strongly believe that a masters programme should assist students to develop a critical reading of literature; the rudiments of a research skillset, such as gathering data or information from different sources including oral, written expression, reflection, observation, lived experiences and logical reasoning; and the ability to analyse and solve basic problems of various types relating to the specific discipline, or profession and social context.

Indeed, I shed silent tears when I see an African university unable to deliver a quality masters programme but being allowed to offer doctoral programmes. Why the rush to move to doctoral programmes? Why is it that the universities in question have no plans to improve the quality of their masters degree programme? Masters degree programmes are key when it comes to the fundamental ideas, roadmap and structure for organising and delivering doctoral degree programmes.

External quality assurance

Most African external quality assurance agencies are organisationally weak. Without doubt, a majority of them are poorly funded, but the vast majority of them are poorly led and managed. It is impossible for any organisation, private, public or voluntary, to perform effectively and efficiently with visionless leaders. Apart from in South Africa, the external quality assurance agencies of African countries have not developed any frameworks for monitoring and assessing the quality of doctoral programmes in universities in their respective countries.

Even where a doctoral education programme is accredited, it is based on criteria such as admissions standards, the qualifications of staff, library resources and the number of students to be admitted. For most external quality assurance agencies, no or little attention is given to process, output and outcomes. Critical processes such as methods of assessment of doctoral courses, of the standards of dissertation defence, of acceptable norms of supervision and of the quality of dissertations are matters that are of little concern.

A specific illustration is the Uganda National Council for Higher Education’s (NCHE) decision to cancel 66 doctoral degrees that Kampala International University awarded in 2011 and 2012 even though the university’s doctoral programme had been duly accredited by NCHE in 2009. The NCHE’s argument was that the theses of the doctoral students were below standard. Similarly, Kenya’s Commission for University Education (CUE) found a number of irregularities in the awarding of 118 doctoral degrees by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

The point is that in both cases the regulators started their investigations only after the media and the public had expressed doubts about the authenticity of those doctoral degrees. If the NCHE and CUE had had any effective monitoring and enforcement system in place for doctoral degrees at those times, the degrees would not have been awarded in the first place. Accordingly, these external quality assurance agencies are reactive rather than proactive as they are more concerned with regulations than with improving quality.

The external quality assurance agencies in African countries are focused predominantly on undergraduate degrees, as Mohamedbhai rightly pointed out in his article. The fact is that many of them do not have staff with the technical and professional qualifications necessary to establish mechanisms for monitoring and assessing doctoral programmes. And, for those with a reasonable amount of resources, there is a lack of commitment and diligence on the part of staff to the process of quality monitoring, enforcement and improvement. With resource constraints and the high cost of conducting academic audits, external quality assurance agencies should find creative ways to perform their functions effectively and efficiently.

The following policies could be adopted in respect of doctoral education:

  • An education institution should have offered a quality masters degree programme for at least 10 years before being allowed to offer doctoral programmes.
  • An institution should perform a biannual self-assessment of its doctoral programmes and send the report to the relevant quality assurance agency. The submitted self-assessment would be used by the agency to review the institution’s doctoral programme.
  • Lecturers and professors who intend to supervise doctoral candidates should show proof of experience or training; and
  • Universities should be encouraged to offer joint doctoral programmes. This involves two or more universities coming together to provide doctoral degrees. This allows all the universities that formed the partnership to pool their resources and expertise to offer more effective doctoral programmes.

Supervisor qualifications

In her article, “Challenges to doctoral education in Africa”, published in University World News on 15 April 2016, Dr Fareeda Khodabocus acknowledges long-held research knowledge that quality doctorates depend significantly on quality supervision. That is because supervisors are supposed to act as counsellors, mentors and advisors to doctoral students. This relationship can be likened to master and apprentice. And this relationship is crucial to the quality of the doctoral experience.

Lecturers without doctoral qualifications should not be allowed to serve as doctoral supervisors. Also, only those who are experts or scholars in the specific field with verifiable research and innovation records and publications in locally or internationally respected scholarly journals should be allowed to supervise doctoral students. Thus, the critical issue is not necessarily about lecturers without PhD or doctoral degrees, but about the people who can make an invaluable contribution to the education and training of doctoral students.

Quality doctoral education is not cheap: it costs money and requires planning and other resources. Consequently, African governments that desire to increase their number of PhD or doctorate holders should ensure there is adequate allocation of targeted funding to their external quality assurance agencies as well as the universities that produce doctorate holders.

Those universities should also provide the lecturers and professors who supervise their doctoral students with attractive incentives, including reduced teaching loads. Their supervision of doctoral students should be recognised as part of their appraisal for promotion and remuneration purposes. Institutional autonomy combined with the requisite accountability are also needed to allow external quality agencies to perform effective regulation of doctoral degree programmes, leading to their improvement, without any political interference.

This news was originally published at University World News.

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