Kenya short of ‘impossible’ target for all lecturers to get PhDs

Government agency has said that academics without a doctorate will have to leave their roles – but this could account for two-thirds of the workforce

April 16, 2019
Source: Alamy

Kenyan universities are heading for a crisis as they look increasingly unlikely to hit a target for all lecturers to have a doctorate by this autumn.

A report from the country’s Commission for University Education says that, according to latest data, just 32 per cent of academic staff possess a PhD. A 2014 directive issued by the commission, the government’s higher education regulator, said that lecturers without a PhD by its deadline – originally November 2018, now pushed back to October 2019 – would not be able to continue in their jobs.

The commission’s paper, which is based on data for 2016-17, says that the majority of lecturers – 53 per cent – have master’s degrees.

Kenya’s Universities Academic Staff Union has claimed that the directive “breached the constitution” because its members had not been properly consulted.

Tristan McCowan, professor of international education at UCL, said it would be impossible for Kenyan universities to achieve the target by October. Building PhD capacity took decades – not years, and certainly not months, he said.

The commission “does have the best intentions” with the initiative, Professor McCowan acknowledged, as “it is very important for Kenyan higher education to enhance its doctoral education”. There is currently a bottleneck caused by rising numbers of undergraduates at Kenyan universities and a need to develop more high-quality staff.

Kenya also needed to boost its research efforts, Professor McCowan added. Many countries were interested in collaborations, but Kenya lacked the research capacity to embark on them. “[Increasing the number of PhDs] is a good idea, but it’s extremely difficult to implement,” he said. “If you don’t have enough well-established academics with PhDs, how do you supervise new ones? And I don’t see how they will be able to lay off two-thirds of the workforce.”

Professor McCowan pointed out that countries such as Brazil had significantly improved their PhD capacity but that this effort had begun in the 1960s. “It also requires extra funding,” he said.

What’s more, Professor McCowan added, such a drive, however well-intentioned, could lead to a “panic for a PhD” that could damage higher education. “If it is badly managed, you might get a diploma mill, with academics churning through PhDs without the full experience, which is not in anybody’s interest,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

Professor McCowan is absolutely right, it may take at least a generation for PhDs to become the norm for lecturers in Kenyan and indeed other Universities in most of Africa. Quality is paramount there is no point having a quick PhD drive unless the quality expected of a PhD can be maintained, this needs time to develop and adequate support. Coillaborative and joint PhD programmes, where possible with institutions who have the experience would be a way forward which some African Universities are already pursuing. This is a better move than either sending staff to complete 3 year PhDs 'abroad' or trying to develop an PhD system with few staff with the relevant qualifications or experience to do this.
When I read an article like this I am always surprised that the implicit assumption that possession of a PhD will make someone a better lecturer is rarely if ever challenged. Being able to carry out research requires a very different skills to teaching as we all know and I would be interested in seeing evidence that PhD's make better teachers than someone without. Having witnessed many PhD's struggle to connect with an audience I am going to take some convincing!
Prof Uduku, I agree with you. As much quality is paramount, the universities system, structures and culture have made it soo hard even for the hardworking students. Kenya has less than 10,000 PhD holders, and I bet there is a possibility half of them are PhD acquires out of Kenya. Statistics show that 5600 register for PHD, but only 369 graduate against a target of 1000. Averagely, it takes nine years to complete PHD and about four years for a Masters degree in Africa. What happens to the other 600 students? Quality, Bad students, Fees, ...! These statistics are worrying. There is need for a paradigm shift, in our system, culture, trainers and students. We must advocate for structures, policies, culture and programmatic national approach to postgraduate training, if Kenya is to thrive in a competitive academic environment.
I concur, that it will not be possible, for Kenya, to achieve the October 2019, deadline.

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