Eusebius J. Mukhwana, PhD
Director General and CEO
Kenya National Qualifications Authority (KNQA)
After decades of decline, African higher education is now arguably in a new era of revival. Initially, our higher education systems were set up using the colonial models of each country in the 1950s and 60s. This model which was largely funded by the Government became unsustainable and was struggling to fund and sustain itself. With the advent of liberalization, since the 1980s families and students took over the bigger role of funding higher education in Africa. This transition though painful, has started to bear fruits. Although many people argue that it has limited access to education by the poor and the disadvantaged populations as well as compromised quality. With the prevalence of knowledge economy discourse, national governments in Africa and their development partners have increasingly aligned higher education with poverty reduction plans and strategies. Further, research capacity has become a critical development issue; and widening participation to doctoral education is seen as an instrument for enhancing this capacity.
A Doctoral degree is the pinnacle of educational attainment and the most respected of all higher educational training. The degree certifies the holder as an independent researcher, an expert with extensive knowledge about the chosen field of study, and a professional with a wide range of transferable skills. As such, doctoral graduates have the capacity and capability to make important contributions to knowledge and drive change in society. Unfortunately, in Africa, the role of doctoral graduates in the country’s economic development has been minimal owing to a complex array of social-economic and political realities. But things are changing; and both the appreciation of their role and the number of doctoral students has been rising in many African countries over the last two decades.
Doctoral graduates represent accumulated human capital, which is a valuable human resource that is useful for making significant contributions to a country’s development. This usually occurs through their capability to enhance the knowledge of others, performing various roles that benefit society, applying acquired skills to research that solves society’s challenges, improving the performance of work colleagues and developing new and novel products. Africa has been slow in benefiting from doctoral graduates because of several challenges.
a) The Continent lacks good facilities and other resources for training doctoral students;
b) Limited support and opportunities for doctoral graduates within the formal and largely informal sectors of our economy leading to under-utilization of PhD graduates’ expertise;
c) Poor supervision skills for doctoral students;
d) Old, outdated and tortuous processes of managing the doctoral training programs; and
e) Doctoral students that are studying, struggling to work and pay for their studies and families.
Research output in Africa remains quite low compared to the rest of the world. Most of the research done by African doctoral graduates is basic and largely academic; and does not benefit many societies. This has led to lower appreciation of these important members of our society. We need national strategies for promoting the work of doctoral students; and there is also increasing need for them to tap into national research priorities. In the absence of such priorities, many “shoot in the dark: thereby compromising their impacts and the usefulness of their research work.
Funding of doctoral research is also a major challenge in many countries in Africa. Often there is reliance on external donors, which means that research priorities may not be very well aligned to national needs and funding remains fragmented and for short periods. And funds even when available are scattered in different silos which are unknown and even unavailable to those in need. This has led to low uptake of funds available in government and even private agencies, leading to failure to tap into a rich pool of creative initiatives and research that could lead to economic transformation of the continent. There is an abysmal dearth of knowledge on how to use research findings by researchers in Africa to catalyze innovation and to make life easier or mitigate everyday life problems of poor rural and urban Africans. Related to this is the issue of Lack of protection of intellectual Property Rights. Most players in the Higher Education sector have no idea of how to get their products evaluated and secured through patents. Many of the students enrolled in post graduate (masters and doctoral) training do not complete their studies in time; leading to exceptionally low completion rates and high dropout rates. Studies by the Author in Kenya showed that only about 70% of master’s and 50% of doctoral students finish their studies at all in Kenya. Over 80% of these students complete after the stipulated time of two years (for masters) and three years (for doctorate). This situation is largely reproduced across many countries in Africa. These delays and high drop out rate has been attributed to student, supervision and university management issues that have been well discussed in another paper.
Several things can be done to improve the impact of doctoral training and Research in Africa.
- There is need to address issues that are causing high dropout rates and low completion rates for doctoral students at African universities. These include matching carefully students with their supervisors, minimizing bureaucracies in student management, better funding of students and establishing postgraduate student support centers;
- There is need for a paradigm shift from doing routine research for the sake of it – to more targeted research which addresses the needs of the communities. Research training and research studies should be strategic and aligned to the needs of the country;
- There is need align research to the needs of the private sector by enhancing the engagement of academia and industry, and also to the needs of governments. This ‘triple-helix’ model is critical for strengthening the profitability of knowledge leading to economic growth.
- Africa needs a research commercialization policy that will help in research uptake and ensure that research ideas move up the value chain and create wealth for the continent;
- Universities need to conduct research that informs policy, law and national dialogue in order to catalyze national development;
- There is need to coordinate policies and legislation to support research as well as strengthen Government-private sector linkages to support doctoral student funding for improved quality of training;
- Funding from international partners should be appraised to ensure that they address the local needs and is not tied to the priorities of other countries/funding bodies;
- The research must also get to the end user. There is need to device ways that can disseminate research to ensure that it reaches the end users. Universities should lead the way in using research outputs by directly engaging with communities. Each university needs to establish a knowledge transfer center which is easily accessible to the end users;
- As more resources are put in research, renown Professors should get more involved in research work, demonstrate academic leadership and mentor upcoming scholars;
- The commercialization of research and technology transfer needs support after publication. A lot of work needs to be done in publicity, patenting and copy writing;
- Linkages with TVET and Industry Institutions play a crucial role in producing practical human resource for the economy. Universities should work with TVET institutions and industry to support fabrication and commercialization of their research products;
These issues have led to their limited involvement in national development.
In response to the findings, three initiatives have been proposed to capitalize on the potential of PhD graduates. Firstly, it is vital for national and regional strategies for doctoral education to include a policy, plan, and budget. Secondly, support and opportunities for PhD graduates, need to be actualized through appropriate remuneration, engagement schemes and greater collaboration between PhD graduates and key stakeholder groups to foster participation; thirdly: it is critical to engage women to further their careers at the highest levels, in order to access a largely missing part of our population in science.
About the Author:
Dr. Eusebius J. Mukhwana is the Director General and CEO of the Kenya National Qualifications Authority (KNQA); and a stronger believer in the abilities of Africa to industrialize and create prosperity for all its people. This article was written as a contribution to the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund Weekly Newsletter.