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What ails post graduate training in Kenya

By Agnes Aineah | August 8th 2019

A man walked into a busy cyber café in Eldoret town where university graduates work late to complete online jobs. *Fred, a Moi University graduate who frequents the café was putting his laptop away when the man, who introduced himself as a Kisii University student approaches him with an unusual offer.

The student wanted a concept paper written for him to submit to the university for his Master’s degree. In a Master’s degree course, a concept paper is a brief summary that summarises the importance of a thesis.

“He looked very desperate and since I saw easy money, I assured him I could complete the whole task overnight and hand it to him the following morning. We sealed the deal at Sh5,000,” says Fred.

Since that day, Fred says he has been approached by many postgraduate students seeking help with their studies, including literature review and writing of background to their research as well as actual data collection. A literature graduate, Fred has helped many students in their research in vast areas, including science fields that he has little knowledge in.

It is a job he finds easy, thanks to what he says is the laziness of supervisors.

“The lecturers who supervise postgraduate students are too lazy to go through whatever the students submit to them. I have seen my clients get good grades in work that is plagiarised,” he says.

He adds: “I have become so good at my job that I can quote a book I have never read to review literature such that only a competent supervisor can detect cheating. We don’t have many such lecturers in Kenyan universities.”

He says supervisors of postgraduate students are either too lazy or engaged in other duties that they don’t find time to thoroughly take their students through research.

But cheating of Masters and PhD students and laxity of supervisors isn’t the only ill that is affecting postgraduate training in Kenya.

A Commission for University Education (CUE) investigation into the embattled Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat) paints a grim reality of the nature of postgraduate training.

The CUE report highlighted discrepancies in enrollment of PhD students, shortage of qualified academic staff and unprofessionalism in the supervision process as some of the factors that tainted the JKuat PhDs.

Cheating among postgraduate students

In a recent analysis by British media, Kenya ranked highly in academic fraud.

Dr Thomas Lancaster, a senior fellow at Imperial College, London, reportedly told the British press that doctorate candidates in Europe and other developed countries were paying Kenyan graduates up to pay £6,000 (Sh756,000) to have their dissertations done for them.

In a slide presentation on LinkedIn, it emerged that Kenya was on top of the list of academic cheats, ahead of the United States and Pakistan. “Kenya is the hotbed where the writing happens. There is high unemployment and a job working from home is coveted. They have good English and low overheads,” said Dr Lancaster.

But with the ongoing debate about quality of postgraduate training in Kenyan universities, it has emerged that Kenyan students are also willing to pay to have their research done for them.

A University of Nairobi political science student who has been an academic writer since his First Year in school says Master’s and PhD students who wanted help with their studies have approached him.

“I only help students in political science fields since they know I am very knowledgeable in the field. I mostly help them with literature review by reading articles and summarising for them. I do this because I also enjoy reading and writing,” he says.

The fourth year student says postgraduate students are usually willing to part with Sh20,000 to have a literature review done for them.

Dr Chrispus Wawire, who teaches Educational Psychology at Kenyatta University (KU), says universities are aware of the rampant cheating by postgraduate students.

“We are aware of the growth of academic writing among university graduates whose work includes helping other students cheat. The only thing universities can do is to invest in tools that can detect the cheating,” says Dr Wawire.

At KU, most departments have done away with writing of projects where postgraduate could only submit scrips for marking. This has been replaced with thesis work where students are supposed to defend their thesis to a panel for grilling.

“Before defense, copies of the document are given to three people who go through it thoroughly in preparation for the presentation. And on actual day, the student is asked questions that they can’t answer logically unless they worked on the thesis themselves,” says Dr Wawire. The university has also invested in software that detects plagiarised work.

But Fred says the software tools that supervisors use to detect plagiarised work are old fashioned and do not efficiently detect cheating.

“It is possible to take someone else’s work and play around with words in a sentence. The software will clear the work as a new idea. Only a lecturer who has vast knowledge in the area will remember reading the work elsewhere and be able to detect the cheating,” he says.

CUE’S report on the highly disputed PhDs found out that some of the journals the students published in were non-existent.

There was also possibility that the students colluded with editors of journals to have their work published, according to the 22-page report.

“Most students had published in journals whose editorial boards included a member of faculty who supervised the same students,” read report.

CUE has since dismissed the publications and calls on the university to adhere to regulations concerning publication.

“For each PhD awarded since publication of Universities Standards, 2014, the university should submit to the Commission for University Education evidence of the student’s publication of two articles in the referred journals, failure to which the PhD shall be recalled until the graduation requirement is fulfilled,” read the report.

Shortage of qualified supervisors

Some 34 PhD students were enrolled at the JKuat Mombasa campus that, according to CUE, did not meet minimum standards on adequacy of academic staff.

The campus was the worst staffed, without a single professor or associate professor. The highest caliber academic was a senior lecturer who doubled up as the campus director. A majority of lecturers at the campus teach on part-time basis.

In the Business and Administration department, for instance, only two of the 51 lecturers were full-time employees of the campus. The rest were lecturers at Technical University of Mombasa, Kenyatta University and Moi University.

“JKuat Mombasa Campus, just like the other campuses, does not have adequate full-time staff. The critical mass of the supervisors are based in the main campus thus putting into question the quality of training of the majority of CoHRED PhD graduates trained in satellite campuses,” read the report.

Key stages in the PhD training including coursework, progress seminars and proposal development take place in campuses.

But Prof Jackton Odote who teaches Electronic and Solar Energy Systems at the Technical University of Kenya (TUK) finds no fault in being supervised by a part time lecturer.

He says any lecturer is free to supervise students at any university as long as they are qualified PhD holders who prove that they have adequate knowledge on a student’s research area.

“There is no problem in supervising a postgraduate student wherever you are teaching even if it is on part-time arrangement. If you are a part-time lecturer at a university and a PhD student expresses their interest in you, there is no fault in accepting the request,” says Prof Odote.

He says it helps a student to source for supervisors based on their competence and not whether or not they are full-time employees of the university.

“While I pursued my PhD in 1994 at Strathclyde University in Scotland, I had two supervisors and one of them taught at a different university. It was the arrangement of the university to have their postgraduate students also supervised by dons from other universities and I thought it provided a rich experience,” says Odote.

He adds: “Where a student is researching in an area that has expertise outside the university, there is no harm in looking for the expertise elsewhere.”

To counter the shortage, CUE recommended that the university abolishes training of PhD students in its satellite campuses.

Dr Wawire faults the commission’s decision to abolish teaching of PhD students. “Saying that universities can no longer enroll PhD students in their satellite campuses is ridiculous since it is the same CUE who gave these campuses a nod to mount these programmes. Lecturers who teach in main campuses are the very people who teach in satellite campuses,” he says.

He says universities are continually embracing open learning platforms to encourage their students to enroll for programmes from wherever they are.

“At KU we have online journals that can be accessed by any student who has the university password. Some of these journals are not even found in the physical library at the main campus,” he says.

“When I enrolled for a PhD in psychometrics, I couldn’t find a single supervisor at the university. The university had to outsource for one from Australia and I was able to complete most of my projects online,” he says.

Lengthy durations of postgraduate training

It was observed that during the 31st, 32nd and 33rd graduations at JKuat, the admission dates of students ranged from 2005 to 2016.

“Some students were found to have taken too long beyond the stipulated duration for PhD programmes as per the Standard,” read the report.

CUE requires that a PhD takes at least three years.

In a report that examined supervisee challenges during the conference held at Kenya School of Monetary Studies last year, Dr Hellen Kiende from Kenyatta University cited heavy supervisor workload, different supervisor orientations and poor communication between supervisors and their students as some of the factors that thwarted transition rates of doctoral students from coursework to actual project work.

“There are cases where one supervisor is assigned up to 70 masters and PhD students to supervise through thesis work. This is too much work for them given that they also have to teach undergraduate students and do their own research,” said Dr Kiende.

Dr Kiende said overworked supervisors were likely to pay less attention to their postgraduate students.

Odote blamed lengthy durations of postgraduate studies on disagreements between supervisors and their students.

The TUK don says good supervisor-student engagement is where the supervisor allows the student some independence.

“Initially, the supervisor is usually the one on top of the student but the two get at par later in the research as the student gains more knowledge. Good supervisors are those who accept to be critiqued by their students and those who allow their students guided independence along the way,” says Odote.

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