Recently, I witnessed a local university sharing a newly approved PhD curriculum on social media. Like a good marketer, the sender announced some of its selling points.
What caught my attention though, was the loud claim that the curriculum included taught, examinable course work as part of the three year degree. There is a near obsession among local universities that PhDs must contain taught, examinable coursework.
I once raised these concerns with a senior Commission for University Education (CUE) official and her answer was not surprising. Universities have taken to a literal reading of CUE guidelines in formulating their academic agenda.
According to the official, CUE’s idea of coursework for PhDs never contemplated taught and examinable coursework, but was a call for structured programmes. Universities have been very dogmatic in implementing CUE guidelines to the detriment of their own welfare. This over zealousness to enforce guidelines is worrying.
CUE itself shares part of the blame of over-regulation of PhD programmes. When CUE insists that a PhD thesis must contain specific number of words, the regulator is clearly overstepping its mandate. In the natural sciences like physics where the dominant research design are lab experiments, these are concise and much smaller than the social sciences and humanities.
Acclaimed mathematician John Nash had one of the shortest PhD dissertations ever published. Titled, ‘Non-Cooperative Games’, it had a total of 26 pages, and only two references. That thesis went on to found the basis for his paper on the development of game theory, for which he won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics. University school boards are better placed to advice on how big a doctoral thesis should be, not CUE.
Doctoral qualifications have a long history, but it was only in the last century when they consolidated respect in the academe. The PhD was traditionally differentiated between two types of terminal qualifications; the research doctorate as distinct from the professional German habilitation, or the Dutch Doctorandus versus the doctor.
The underlying rationale for the differentiation is that doctorate qualifications may be designed to serve rather different functions; at one end the academic doctorate is a specialised qualification based on mastery of a specific discipline, typically envisaged to lead directly to an academic and research career.
The other general doctorate might serve as a benchmark for professionals, higher level appointments or even in the business world. It is assumed the academic PhD would be intellectual, research based and possibly not transferable to the more generalised professional doctorate.
To their credit, CUE makes provisions for these two kinds of tracks, which borrow largely from the American and European academic traditions. However, CUE draws distinctions based on whether the doctoral students would be expected to produce or consume research. Academic PhDs are assumed to be the producers of research. Troublingly, universities rarely make this explicit, with some curricular at PhD levels showing a worrying mix of research and vocational type taught courses.
Regarding entry into a PhD programme, the master’s degree is required in Kenya and much of the commonwealth countries.
In US universities, a master’s degree is not an intermediate qualification. Students who wish to work on a PhD enter directly from their four year bachelor’s degree to the coursework part of their PhD. While such universities offer masters’ degree, they are more or less confined to professional, non-scholarly disciplines.
Kenyan universities would ordinarily require a year of masters coursework and a written dissertation before starting a PhD. US universities require coursework because a master’s degree is not an intermediate degree for a PhD. It is at this point that one may fault the need for further ‘taught’ course work at PhD level. What would be taught at doctoral level that was actually not taught at the masters’ level?
In an honest advice to the South African equivalent to CUE, Prof Andre du Toit had cautioned South African universities way back in 2012, that the higher education system there had neither the resources-in terms of funding or academic capital, to establish a further level of doctoral coursework on top of existing masters’ programmes.
Nor was there need to do it. PhD coursework is potentially excess baggage. However, there is a possibility of infusing some needed ‘course work’ in a doctoral structured training. I will explain.
There are largely two models of training PhDs. The apprenticeship, which is an individual level programme based on a working relationship with the supervisor, and is largely unstructured. Access to this ‘research degree’ is by way of a short proposal, which if accepted, demands of the student to frame their research, exhibit independent thinking and demonstrate analytical, and sometimes abstract writing.
Sadly, CUE has either lacked the courage to sanction this model, or is infatuated with the American tradition of course work doctoral training, which is essentially a mix. The second model involves a structured, ‘graduate school’ set up, comprised of a taught phase that typically comprises of doctoral level seminars and workshops (not sit in exams).
The courses at this level tend to be research oriented ‘seminars’ in which doctoral researchers are exposed to the ideas of other researchers, and are able to present their own work and likewise receive comment. Such an environment affords an opportunity for reflection, which is needed at this advanced level.
So where did we go wrong with our PhD training? Well, we mistook the word ‘structured’ PhDs and have gone ahead, full throttle to shove examinations and non-interactive lectures to doctoral students, who by all means should be spared the ignominy of living through an entire life punctuated by drab examinations. On its part, CUE must stop at giving guidelines and seize from ‘policing’ universities. But importantly, universities and university senates must play their roles, and give academic leadership to doctoral level training.
[The writer is a British Academy Visiting Fellow, University of Cambridge, firstname.lastname@example.org]