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Why Kenya ranks so lowly in doctoral studies among peers in the region

By Duncan Omanga | Jun 10th 2017 | 5 min read
President Uhuru Kenyatta confers a doctoral degree to Daniel Ananda Otanga at Kibabii University last year. [Photo: File, Standard]

Last week, I attended our biennial Bayreuth Alumni meeting in Germany. At one of the round-table discussions, the status of the doctorate in Africa was discussed. Among the panelists was Prof Anne Nangulu from Kenya’s Commission for University Education (CUE), Prof Yamina El Kirat from Morocco’s Mohammed V University and Prof Dodji Amouzouvi from the Université d’Abomey-Calavi in Benin.

While important insights on the status of graduate programmes in general, and the ‘African’ doctorate in particular emerged, the discussions painted a grim picture for Kenyan doctoral studies.

In the context of a biting shortage of academics with PhDs in our local universities, Kenya produces only 230 doctorates annually against a target of 1,000 PhDs. Meanwhile, the CUE has announced that from 2018, only lecturers with a PhD will be allowed to teach in universities. If the current trends continue, this target will not be met.

In a report released a few years ago by CUE, it emerged that in all the seven major public universities, PhD holders were at an all time low, with masters’ degree holders dominating the lecture rooms. This notwithstanding, universities at the time had been at their most aggressive in mounting academic programmes. As I write, nearly 60 per cent of academics in Kenyan universities do not have a PhD.

In yet another CUE report released in August last year, a grimmer picture emerged of post-graduate studies in Kenya. The commission noted that enrollments in master’s and PhD programmes are not only low, but have poor completion rates with the quality of supervision of graduate programmes on the whole quite weak.

As a result, the numbers of post-graduate students being produced are inadequate to meet national needs that include staffing universities, replacing an ageing faculty, and the professional cadres required in government, the private sector, international agencies and the NGO community.

The report indicated that post-graduate student enrollment is a miserable 10 per cent of the total university student population. In 2014, there were 40,173 students enrolled in master’s programmes and 4,394 in PhD courses, compared with 395,920 undergraduates. These statistics are worrying. Nearly two thirds of academics in Kenya are technically not qualified to teach post-graduate students.

Overpriced studies

Drawing from the panel discussions in Bayreuth and my own observations as a Kenyan academic, I wish to highlight how the aforementioned troubles can be surmounted and how, as a country, we can boost graduate studies. Kenya can borrow a lot from other African countries with successful post-graduate studies like Morocco.

While we are grappling with extremely few numbers in our graduate programmes, in Morocco, they are overwhelmed with high numbers. The Faculty of Letters in Mohammed V University (equivalent to a regular humanities/social science faculty) has more than 1,000 doctoral students. A standard faculty in Kenya has on average five to 10 doctoral students at most.

The difference between Kenya and Morocco is financing. Education is free at all levels in Morocco. In Kenya, universities draw pride in making their graduate programmes ridiculously overpriced. Meanwhile, the price tag of a PhD programme is incongruent with the content delivered.

As such, post-graduate education in Kenya has become akin to reproduction of an elite social category, where the coveted title is essentially merchandised to an ‘aspirational’ social class. For the average Kenyan, this means doctoral studies can only be accessed after back-breaking savings or borrowing. Unsurprisingly, the average age of a Kenyan PhD student is 45 or higher. I have argued before that the returns from an investment in a doctoral study are most when the degree is completed in one’s 30s or late 20s.

A common contradiction in Kenya is that the state expects high outputs in graduate programmes yet invests very little. It is not too dissimilar to the proverbial village drunk who routinely returns home in darkness, and in a stupor, insists on eating steak for which he did not leave behind. We do not have a national policy on post-graduate training. Therefore, we have virtually no guidelines on budgeting, scholarships, priorities or a national research agenda.

I have mentioned previously how the excellence initiative in Germany hoisted previously average German graduate schools to the apex of university global rankings. The scheme involved a deliberate initiative by Germany’s federal education ministry where selected universities were ‘properly’ financed as research intensive institutions, with specific specialisations, in order to boost the research profile of German universities.

The initiative has now become a model for post-graduate training in other countries. We need not just a policy, but a programmatic, national approach to post-graduate training if we are to thrive in a competitive academic environment.

Besides financing, academic structures that support graduate studies have not done any better. The debate on whether a graduate school facilitates or inhibits doctoral studies featured prominently in the discussions. While departmentally run programmes benefit from limited bureaucratic structures, there are dangers of compromising research quality. On their part, graduate schools, if poorly structured, can become lethargic, dogmatic and very often corrupt. However, there was consensus that the future of doctoral programmes in Africa is located in well funded and properly structured graduate schools.

Dropout rates

The issue of poor completion rates of graduate programmes came up. Averagely, it takes nine years to complete a PhD and about four for a master’s degree in Africa. The reasons for this are many, but blame is shared between students, academics and the existing academic structures. In Morocco, for instance, free education means that most students do not put value in completing the process. In Kenya, however, high costs leads to high dropout rates and deferment of studies.

Also, contrary to common international practice, very few graduate schools design a contractual agreement between a supervisor and students committing them to complete the work in a set time. In addition, the process of reading and examining a thesis is replete with untold delays. The reason is simple. Since we have not established a culture of research universities, most academics that should be doing supervisory work are overburdened with teaching. Besides, the examining process is the most thankless.

Universities in Kenya pay between a paltry $40-70 (Sh4,133-7,233) to examine a thesis. Other universities in the region pay between $250-1,000 (Sh25,833-103,335) to do so. Potential examiners are a discouraged, underpaid and overworked lot, yet it is surprising how much is expected of them.

Finally, the Bayreuth discussions highlighted how local universities have been a little overzealous in implementing CUE guidelines to the detriment of post-graduate students. For instance, a requirement that doctoral students must publish part of their work has been pushed to masters students. This, at a time when leading universities are offering nine to 12 month masters programmes, will only worsen completion rates.

Most troubling, however, is the insistence of examinable course work for PhD students. While coursework might work for a few disciplines, the vast majority of PhD programmes do not need it. Coursework creates good teachers while a research based programme creates good researchers. We must make our choice.

Dr Omanga lectures at Moi University

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