Compulsory doctorates are not a cure for Ghana’s academic malaise

Time, money, planning and monitoring are key to improving standards, say Eric Fredua-Kwarteng and Samuel Kwaku Ofosu 

October 14, 2019
a Ghanaian doctor
Source: iStock

“If you do not hold a PhD, you will not be allowed to teach in a university,” thundered Ghana’s education minister, Matthew Opoku Premph, last November, as he unveiled his bold new policy aimed at improving the quality of Ghanaian higher education.

It was not an unreasonable requirement for those teaching Ghana’s brightest minds, the minister told reporters. In Finland, for example, even kindergarten and primary school teachers often held a doctorate, and many other African countries had adopted similar “no PhD, no university teaching” rules.

Although “most” Ghanaian lecturers currently lack a PhD, “we are giving them time to improve their knowledge through British government support”, he added, presumably referring to the provision of funding for them to do a PhD by correspondence at a UK university.

Many observers agree that change is overdue. More young Ghanaians are going to university and many polytechnics are being converted into technical universities, so it is time to ensure that teaching is robust and research-informed, they argue. They also hope that the move will create a research community within universities and beyond that will help address Ghana’s various social and development challenges.

But it is not uncontroversial. Even the most advanced higher education sectors will generally make space for non-PhD holders if they possess specialist knowledge and skills; it remains to be seen whether the new rules will, for example, stop a practising surgeon with 25 years’ experience but no doctorate from teaching medical students.

Others remind the minister that PhD holders are extremely scarce in many key disciplines, from computer science to ophthalmology and dentistry. Ghana has about 17 public and 80 private universities – a large number for a population of 29 million – but they have proved to be unpopular places to work among young people. Upskilling the existing, greying academic body is not going to be enough to maintain the supply of doctorate-holders.

Six years ago, Ghana’s tertiary education regulator, the National Accreditation Board, concluded that it would be “too high a demand to set PhD as the minimum standard for teaching at the degree level” given the shortage of PhD graduates. Doctoral enrolments in public universities have since increased, from 824 in 2012-13 to almost 1,200 in 2015-16, while some 1,862 doctorates were completed in 2018-19. However, that still seems too few to keep academic departments staffed.

Increasing PhD graduation levels will be particularly tricky given the vocational nature of most postgraduate courses in Ghana. Only 7 per cent of the 5,774 master’s degrees awarded in 2014-15 required students to undertake a research project and write a thesis under the supervision of a faculty member. Without these rudimentary research skills developed at master’s level, it is hard to see how students could succeed on a more demanding PhD programme. More scholarships and bursaries are surely required to entice students into research-based master's programmes if the desired culture of doctoral study is ever to become a reality.

Moreover, given how many Ghanaians crave doctorates for self-aggrandisement, rather than out of any commitment to a discipline, strict standards and checks must be upheld to prevent abuse. The quality of doctoral graduates should matter as much as their quantity, regardless of the level of demand for them.

The policy of “no PhD, no university teaching” is quickly becoming a lively discussion point across Africa and beyond, as developing countries strive to improve research capacity and teaching quality in their fast-expanding university sectors. But such rules must be formulated and introduced carefully, involving university leaders at every stage.

More investment is also required from governments as finance remains a barrier to PhD completion. Candidates mostly rely on savings, family money or their own salaries to fund their studies and it is often not sufficient. 

The Finnish system that the minister so admires is a product of many years of elaborate planning, investment and commitment. If he wants Ghana to emulate it, similar amounts of time, money, planning and monitoring will be required. It will not happen by a mere executive fiat.

Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is an educator and policy consultant in Canada. Samuel Kwaku Ofosu is academic manager at the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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Reader's comments (1)

As a non phD with specialist knowledge/ skills with extensive collaborative teaching experience with PhD holders in medical sciences, I have seen at close range the complementarities so necessary to forging SOLID wholesome graduates in medical sciences when ‘field based’ practicing specialists ( with pedagogical skills ) are able to cross pollinate the efforts of phD holders who though grounded in the ‘science’ of the subject are comparatively less well grounded it its ‘arts’ . The best of course may come from the ranks of those with both resumes rather than one or the other. In the larger and more overall context it is possible to understand how desirable the minister’s goal seems ; the more academically qualified the teacher the likelier the chances of better results at every level, other factors being constant . Basil jide fadipe.