Uphold high academic standards as interest in PhD degrees rises

Kisii University Council Chairperson Dr Mildred Mudany (left) confers a Ph.D. degree to a student during the institution's 9th graduation ceremony. [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

Among the most coveted honorifics, 'Doctor' ranks right up there, especially when accompanied by a deliberate posterior 'PhD' to underscore the fact that you actually read for your doctorate.

This means that you are not exactly a medic, nor a honoris causa recipient. Neither are you the mystical 'Daktari kutoka Kitui' whose adverts we see on every tree and wall claiming magical ability to offer paranormal solutions to matters of love, curses and ghosts.

Upon conferment of this degree, if I remember right, there is that initial euphoria coupled with some mild embarrassment as everyone around showers you with that 'Daktari' flattery.

This is followed by a phase of maturing and relishing your accomplishment, which finally gives way to the realisation that you are merely a tuk-tuk in a vast bazaar of glittering academic SUVs, some of whom are experienced professors with hefty resumes that can barely fit in your shelf. And finally, the AD Scientific Index's yearly ranking of Kenya's Top 5,000 scientists reveals your humble place in the nation's cognitive pecking order.

As expected, the potential of wielding flashy academic titles has not been lost to the predatory political class. One lowly university employee successfully won a political seat by shamelessly fronting himself to villagers as a 'professor', complete with a well-cultivated philosophical aura and excessive, unkempt facial hair.

Right left and centre, we have seen Kenyan politicians stampeding for academic certification, obviously for the sole purpose of validating their stranglehold on legislative offices. Sometimes, academic documents have surfaced bearing logos of institutions that do not exist in any known jurisdictions. At one point, a prominent local private institution was sucked into the fray, infamously becoming the go-to shrine for politicians - and indeed anyone with means - seeking accelerated education.

Behind the usual headline-hogging intrigues of the Kenyan education sector that range from the growing pains of the Competency Based Education to the government's new funding model for public universities, the uptake of higher education locally has been nothing short of phenomenal.

The extent to which Kenyans are willing to go to acquire higher education was revealed by the unfolding drama of the aborted airlift of students from Uasin Gishu County to Finland, which cost their parents a total of Sh1.1 billion. Still, I must confess that I was genuinely impressed by leaders with practical plans for their constituents, perhaps because in my native Central Kenya, the closest our youth have ever come to experiencing an academic airlift is by watching YouTube videos.

Anecdotal demographics indicate that, right now, there may be as many doctorates in middle-level colleges, secondary and to some extent, primary schools as are in the universities. A lot of retirees have also taken up reading for advanced degrees as a hobby.

No doubt, the icing of the cake is the fact that a sitting president is leading from the front in this respect. I hope that he was appropriately rewarded for his unusual accomplishment. Tongue-in-cheek, it would be scandalous for the Salaries and Remuneration Commission to keep paying Dr Ruto by the same tired scale used for his predecessors who were not as well read.

What then should we infer from this indisputable proliferation of PhDs? A sceptic would immediately question how it ever became so easy to acquire an otherwise extremely elusive qualification, informally branded 'Permanent Head Damage' for its exacting rigour. Are all requisite research protocols being thoroughly followed, or has the focus shifted to solely acquiring that coveted certificate as an ornamental possession? Has the desire to out-compete peers, or to self-actualise by totting a pompous honorific, obscured the original philosophy of publishing, innovation outreach and consultancy which are a must in the doctoral arena?

In a country like ours where dishonest shortcuts are often winked at and even celebrated, and where public universities are being forced to operate like private institutions by the diminished government capitation and a freeze on hiring, these concerns demand more than a passing glance.

But then, assuming these questions have favourable answers, is there anything wrong with basic and tertiary education practitioners holding the highest degrees? Absolutely not, unless perhaps in the sense in which the Teacher Service Commission unfailingly reminds teachers seeking study leave: Advanced degrees have zero relevance and utilitarian value, and of course, negligible pecuniary returns, in that environment.

In any case, an explosion in higher education was inevitable with so many constituent colleges being chartered as independent universities during the Kibaki era. Kenyans - and especially teachers - were bound to position themselves for the new job openings.

My ideal world is one in which remuneration is pegged on verified qualification, after which scholars and teachers are allowed to work at whatever appropriate level in the educational system that they enjoy most.

Nothing beats the picture of a grandfatherly professor sitting among toddlers. The great scientist Albert Einstein often "took time out from investigating the mysteries of the universe" to teach young children mathematics during his free time.