We should reform Kenya’s PhD supply chain

Cabinet Secretary for Education Prof. George Magoha make his remarks during the launch of competency based curriculum(CBC) and training of teachers on competency based assessment on 23rd April 2019 at Uhuru Primary in Lang'ata Nairobi.[Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

The observation by Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha that some local PhDs are suspect was a bombshell when our doctorate classes are filling to the brim, when taking the ultimate graduate degree has become a rite of passage.

The minister’s claim created a vibrant debate, mostly among PhD holders and students. The public is left spectating unsure which side to support. What is really going on in Kenya’s higher education? And where do we go from here? 

First, I would have preferred targeting all bad PhDs irrespective of whether they are local or from abroad. That includes those owned by some preachers. Targeting local PhDs gives an impression that foreign PhDs are better. Just like the new competence-based curriculum gives an impression that 8-4-4 was not competent.

Truth be told, there is a perception that anything foreign is superior, including wives and husbands. The impression that our local PhDs and by extension lower certificates such as masters or bachelors are inferior will make Kenyans uncompetitive in the global market. Someone can use it against us and add, “even your minister said it”.  President Moi once asked an interesting question, “Kama mama yako hana meno utaambia kila mtu?”

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Will such public statements make it easier for graduates from foreign universities to get local jobs? Remember most decisions are often based on perceptions, not reality. Will this statement create a new market for foreign universities already recruiting our students in 5-star hotels? Will it slow down the growth of PhD enrollment in our universities? Will it deflate the esteem of our PhD graduates?

Unintended consequences apart, the CS has a point but without data or evidence, which is at the core of any PhD thesis. If we do not arrest the decline in the standards of education at whatever level, we risk killing the competitiveness of the country.

PhD ought to create the next generation of thinkers and problem solvers. That is why in most countries, PhD students are sponsored to let their minds flower. At the end of the programme, you are expected to advance the frontiers of knowledge or possibly solve a practical problem.

At the core of Magoha’s concern was training PhDs without commensurate return to the society. Most get personal returns through job promotions or just self-actualisation. The latter is the reason the average age of PhD students is higher than in Western universities.

We could look at the issue raised by the CS in a different perspective. Why do we pursue a PhD? What is the ultimate objective? While in other advanced countries PhD is the route to research, it’s not always that way in Kenya.

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There are three reasons why PhD is popular in Kenya and that may explain why there is less focus on research and, may I say, quality.

One, lots of PhD students are not driven by their love of knowledge and curiosity, they want to get out of the crowded cohort of master degree holders. It’s a status symbol.  That is why you find lots of middle and upper level managers in PhD classes. Even Cabinet secretaries are in PhD classes. Not to forget our Deputy President.

Two, lots of big government jobs including boards of directors seem to favour PhD holders. Just check a sample of parastatals. That has made lots of Kenyans go back to school. The returns or prize is very visible!

Intimidate neighbours

Three, some want a PhD to intimidate their neighbours. That is why PhD is very popular in the media or business cards. Being called Daktari has some feel good effect. One thing we forgot to import from USA as we copied their constitution was muting titles. Why is Donald Trump, the president of the world’s only superpower addressed as Mr President while our governors whose counties depend on largesse from national government demand to be addressed as “Your Excellency”?

Given these objectives you increase chances of ‘the end justifies the means’. After all, once you get the PhD no one asks you how you got it.  Walk around most universities and you will be met by several adverts, for assistance on data analysis and proposal writing. It so happens that most PhD programmes require you to use statistics, which is not a cup of tea for most students. Never mind that statistics is misused with a belief that a study without a heavy dose of statistical analysis is not good enough.

Where do we go from here?

The market for PhD is not efficient. They are too few to police each other for quality. The small market and the esteem they are held to by the society means they are not open to scrutiny. If someone says he or she has a PhD in mycology with a focus on mitochondria or gene programming using Python, what would be your next question?

This lack of public scrutiny makes it easy for “fakes” to hide. By invoking their titles and no demand to demonstrate what their PhD stands for, they can easily get their way. PhD is becoming popular for another reason; it can cover up for your other incompetences. Few want to question you because you are Dr so-and-so. Yet even in higher education, we need countervailing views. Handshakes are not good for intellectual growth.

Regulators come in where the market fails. And they should not come at the end, after graduation. They should come at the beginning. Who qualifies to pursue a PhD? What are the entry criteria? Great universities demand an aptitude test such as GMAT or GRE, which filters speculators.

The PhD market is also likely to suffer from a “lemon problem” which won former UoN don Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof and Michael Spence a Nobel prize in Economics. Simply put, a bad car (a lemon) is likely to be more advertised in a sales yard than a good car and, therefore, overpriced because buyers do not know its true value. This will push good cars out of the market.

Have high-quality PhD students been pushed away by low quality ones? Is that what has happened in the PhD market to warrant CS’ complaint?

Let us be blunt. Low quality PhDs, whether local or foreign, are products of institutions and they must take some blame too. Do we inspire our students? Do we demand the highest standards from them? Students are obedient particularly at PhD level and their skill and quality reflect those who teach them. How much inbreeding do we allow?  How many dons want to clone themselves through students’ work?

It should be said loudly that having a PhD is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be a thinker, researcher or even a leader. A PhD must be tempered with experience, humility and curiosity. The few speculators in the PhD programmes should not lead to wholesale condemnation of an entire cohort of PhD graduates. There are men and women who go beyond the call of duty to read, research and innovate.

Let us reform the entire supply chain of PhDs from admission to expectations after graduation. Should there be an admission test? Should we consider your scores in KCSE and other exams? Should we allow online PhD? With such reforms, the society will start feeling the PhDs in policies, decisions, innovations and inspiration to the next generation, not on business cards or event introduction or in silence - obituaries.

- The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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